As a Torah reader, this week’s portion, VaYishlach, has one of my favourite verses. As he makes his preparations for his meeting with hi estranged brother Esau, Jacob says to himself (Genesis 32:21):
אכפרה פניו במנחה ההולכת לפני ואחרי כן אראה פניו אולי ישא פני
In the JPS translation:
If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favour.
However, this translation misses the key root form of the verse, so I will try my own:
I will atone for his face, with the presents going before my face, and afterwards I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face.
The root face (פני in Hebrew) appears 4 times in this verse! The alliteration jumps out in Hebrew, but what does it mean?
Soon Jacob finds himself alone in the night, encounters a man who struggles with him and Jacob is injured. Jacob, recognizing this is no normal man, demands a blessing and is given the name Yisrael for having struggled with God and Man. Now the faces appear again in the text:
And Jacob called the place Peniel [Face of God], for I have seen God face to face and my soul was saved.
From the beginning, Jacob is the quiet introverted son, and quietly he observes the faces around him. He sees his father showing favour to his brother, his mother watching over them – trying to balance things. He notices when his brother’s face is red and tired from the hunt, and buys the birthright. He watches his father’s blind eyes as he receives his brother’s blessing, looking for signs his been found out. When he leaves his father-in-laws house, it is because “his face was not with him as yesterday and the day before” (Genesis 31:2).
Now, it is his brother’s face he fears, because in it he has to face himself – and acknowledge what he did to receive the birthright and the blessing. He lived 20 years in exile because of it, but now there is no more running. How will his violent, red-faced brother receive him after all these years? He prepares to apologize, to make war, or to flee if necessary. He does not know what to expect when he sees Esau’s face.
In the small hours of the night, Jacob is alone, and he struggles with himself until the morning. He comes face to face with himself. He sees an angel of God face to face, he receives a new name and he is saved. He knows now that however his brother reacts, he is ready. He accepts his fear and his mistakes, and goes out to confront his brother.
Years later, after years of trouble and tribulation from his children, and 20 years of mourning for his lost son, Jacob is again revived by a face. He sees Joseph and says, “I will die now, after I have seen your face for you are still alive. “ (Genesis 36:30)
Of the patriarchs, Jacob has the most troubled and difficult life. His greatness comes when he faces his fears straight on. It is at those times he rises to become Yisrael, who struggles with man and God – and prevails.