Hebrew is based upon strong, concrete images that emphasize relationships. For instance, the Hebrew words for “before”, “within” and “because” are all rooted in the word panim, face, or p’nei, ” the face of”, a phrase generally connected to another word or phrase. “Before” in Hebrew is lifnei, literally, “to the face of someone.” “Within” in Hebrew is bifnim, literally, “inside the face of someone.” “Because” in Hebrew is mipnei, literally, “from the face of someone.” Add to these words, other prepositions such as “earlier on”, which in Hebrew is lifanim, literally, “to someone’s face,” and the prepositional phrase, “before me”, which in Hebrew is lifanai, literally, “to my face.”
Let’s face it: the face is a very potent image used by the Hebrew language for prepositions and conjunctions, words that express relationships and make connections. For at the heart of all genuine relationships, good or bad, is encountering one another face to face. At the heart of all relationships when they break down is the turning away of our faces from one another.
The biblical story about the encounter between Jacob and his estranged brother, Esau, uses this facial imagery with great artistic skill. Jacob, literally “the one who grabs the heel,” has for twenty years been a heel on the run from his brother, Esau, having stolen Esau’s blessing by posing as him to their blind father, Isaac. Upon his return to the land of Canaan –older, sadder, and perhaps wiser – Jacob is told that Esau is coming to greet him, accompanied by four hundred men. This is not a good omen, but Jacob prepares to face the music by finally facing him.
The night before the fateful confrontation, Jacob sends messengers bearing gifts and deferential greetings to Esau. In a rare biblical instance of interior monologue, Jacob reasons:
Ba-mincha ha-holekhet l’fanai
V’aharei khen er-eh fanav
U-lai yisa fanai.
In his Torah translation, the Bible scholar, Everett Fox renders each of these “face-phrases” literally, rather than figuratively, to show the reader how the Torah meant for Jacob’s words to be heard by an audience, using lead or repeat words:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
With the gift that goes ahead of my face
Afterward, when I see his face
Perhaps he will lift up my face! (i.e., be gracious to me)
Jacob’s more mature reasoning is reflected in his growing inclination to face his brother rather than turn on his heels and keep running. However, he is not completely there yet, for he is only motivated to face Esau out of fear and placation, rather than love or the desire for forgiveness.
After his wrestling match with an anonymous man who renames him Yisrael, “the one who struggles with God,” Jacob also renames the place where that defining struggle took place: Peniel, literally, “The face of God”:
Ki ra-iti Elohim
Panim el panim
For I have seen God
Face to face,
And my life has been saved.
Whether we understand the man to be Esau’s guardian angel, God’s messenger sent to test Jacob’s strength, or a projection of Jacob’s inner conflicts, we note here a new stage in Jacob’s growth prior to meeting Esau. Jacob recognizes that his struggles are potentially deadly and require genuine, face-to-face courage. He cannot run from difficult relationships and he cannot simply push through them with bribery or sycophantism.
Finally, Jacob and Esau meet face to face, embrace and reconcile. Though the rabbis’ later interpretations condemn Esau as the paradigm of evil for the Roman empire and early Christianity, the Torah presents him as a real person who has grown in forgiveness and satisfaction with his own blessings. Jacob is so filled with cathartic relief and gratitude that this enemy “other” has once again become his brother, he presses Esau to take the gifts that he had sent ahead of him the night before:
Ki al kein
Ki-r’ot p’nei Elohim,
For I have, after all,
Seen your face
As one sees the face of God,
And you have been gracious to me.
These words echo Jacob’s previous ones, yet with one significant development: his face to face encounter with the unnamed man shows him that he is capable of struggling successfully with his enemies. His face to face encounter with Esau shows him that he is capable of making peace with his enemies.
Teaching enemies, or potential enemies, to move from “other to brother” in face to face interactions is extremely hard work. In hostile, polarized environments, the person or institution that does this successfully is indeed rare; this is why I support the work of Hand-In-Hand, the network of five Jewish-Arab bilingual and bi-cultural schools in Israel. News this past week of an extremist hate crime – arson – against Hand in Hand’s school in Jerusalem reminded me of an inspiring visit I made there a couple of days before the holiday of Purim in 2010.
One aspect of the school’s philosophy is to teach Israeli children of diverse backgrounds to respect each other’s cultures by celebrating equally the holidays on the different religious calendars of the student body. When I arrived at Hand In Hand, the school courtyard was swarming with kids and teachers from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds dressed for the holiday in every conceivable costume. I later watched one of the teachers, a woman who grew up in my city of Albany, New York before making aliyah, working her educational magic with a diverse group of Arab and Jewish second graders while also dressed in costume.
The significance of this unique Purim celebration cannot be overstated. Purim traditionally is the Jewish people’s particular celebration of deliverance from enemies who seek to destroy us in every generation. Yet the Purim I saw at Hand In Hand turned this meaning of the celebration on its head by allowing all of the young revelers to blur, then transcend, the boundaries of presumed enmity and mistrust that too often exist between Arabs and Jews: the potential enemy – the other – becomes a brother or sister through shared celebration of what matters to fellow students who are different from him or her. From what I understand of the school’s curriculum, its students study about what a holiday like Purim means to Jews. Then they also have the chance to experience that holiday intimately, whether or not they are Jewish, and to have fun together while doing it. What more powerful way to symbolize this boundary-challenging experience than through a bunch of kids of disparate backgrounds wearing costumes and playing together, exploring the personas of others in a safe manner?
This approach to bi-cultural education is not free of critique. For instance, by blurring boundaries for the sake of bringing Arab and Jewish Israelis face to face with each other, does it blur them so much that it renders a distinctive sense of Jewish or Arab identity meaningless? However, as the recent murders of Jews by terrorists and the arson attack on the school, all in Jerusalem, demonstrate, the stakes are too high to not support such a far-reaching educational effort by schools like Hand-In-Hand. Israel is a proudly democratic incubator of such fine, pluralistic face to face encounters between clashing communities; yet Israel is also facing, as never before, extremists on both sides who view their fellow citizens as faceless Esaus worthy of nothing less than destruction. This is why now is the time to promote peace education programs such as those I witnessed at Hand In Hand. It is the Jewish, Zionist, and human thing to do.