Parashat Vayishlach: “Encountering God”

In our Torah portion for this week, we are told of Jacob’s fears, and of his wrestling with a man-angel who changes Jacob’s name to Israel.  Following that struggle “Jacob therefore named that place Peni’el–‘For I have seen God face-to-face
(פנים-אל-פנים / Panim-El-Panim), yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31).

In Jacob’s struggling with an angel, he discovers two things:  that he can survive conflict, and that in struggle he encounters God.  Moreover, this encounter is two way–he and God meet face to face, one does not see the other alone.  The encounter is, by definition, mutual.

Interestingly, Jacob is the only individual in the Torah whose encounter with God is described as such, panim-el-panim.  Abraham and God have dialogue, and Moses sees God’s back side, but neither of these figures meet God face to face.  Later in the Bible, Gideon encounters God face-to-face, Ezekiel speaks of the Israelites’ encounter with God in the wilderness as meeting them face to face, and Hosea makes a similar reference.  It seems to remain the case that an individual meeting God face-to-face is quite a special experience for Jacob, and later for Gideon as well.

We, in our most ancient prayers, seek after our forefather Jacob’s experience.  With the words of the priestly blessing, we pray “may the Eternal’s face shine upon you and be gracious with you, and may God’s face be lifted upon you, and grant you peace,” (Numbers 6:25-26).  When we pray our most sacred words, we express a deep longing, one that Jacob gave voice to after his encounter in this week’s Torah portion: that we may be blessed with an encounter with God, and that it may be face-to-face. In that struggle with the Divine we may come to learn that through it we find life and all the more so survive.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Léon Bonnat  (1833–1922)
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Léon Bonnat  (1833–1922)

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Harvey Fields)


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