Vayishlach: Seeing the “Face of God” in Others

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Well, it’s a rare week in which a matter of Jewish law decided by a
committee of 25 Conservative rabbis gets major play on television
news, not to mention the New York Times and Time magazine. (Links
below.) In case you haven’t heard, the Committee on Jewish Law and
Standards ( a.k.a. the “Law Committee”), which is the central halachic
[Jewish law and practice] advisory body of the Conservative Movement,
this week accepted a scholarly paper [t’shuvah, or responsum] which
allows for (but does not mandate) the possibility of Conservative
rabbis and congregations adopting a more affirmative stance towards
same-sex relationships.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be heated conversations
at rabbinic gatherings and in congregational boardrooms for many
months to come, but the one question I’m sure is on the minds of many
faithful readers of Rabbineal-list is : OK, there’s a big controversy,
but what does this have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because as my teacher Rabbi Artson taught
me, and I’ve taught to many in his name, one of the greatest things
about being Jewish is that whatever the issue at hand is, there is
something to be learned from the weekly Torah portion- it always works
that way! First, let’s catch up from last week: Our ancestor Yaakov is
on his way back to the land of Canaan after years away, and he is
bringing a large camp of women, children and animals with him. He
spends the night alone before meeting his estranged brother Esav, and
then, in a dramatic scene the next day, apparently reconciles with
him. Yaakov presents Esav with many animals as a gift, and humbles
himself before the older brother he has not seen in many years. At
first, Esav refuses to accept these gifts, saying he “has enough,” but
Yaakov persists:

“But Yaakov said, ‘No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor,
accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face
of God, and you have received me favorably.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 33:10)

Commentators disagree about Yaakov’s meaning here- did he mean that he
is humbled before Esav as one would be before God, or did he mean to
imply obliquely that he, Yaakov, has seen the face of God in a vision
(thus suggesting he is under Divine protection) which might cause Esav
to think twice about any plan of revenge? A simpler explanation is
that Yaakov is saying that just as one does not enter a sacred space
to meet God empty-handed, he does not wish to meet his brother
empty-handed.

All of these are plausible readings, but our Conservative Etz Hayim
commentary suggests another way to understand Yaakov’s reference to
“seeing the the face of God.” Etz Hayim suggests that Yaakov is not
trying to tell his brother to back off, but rather informing his Esav
that because he, Yaakov, has seen the face of God, he is no longer the
same Yaakov who stole Esav’s blessing so many years, but one who has
learned that even his estranged brother is made in the Image of God
and is thus worthy of respect and the opportunity for reconciliation.

It’s important to note that the Torah portrays Yaakov and Esav as
struggling with each other even in the womb- they are almost
paradigmatic rivals. While it’s certainly possible that Yaakov was
merely trying to flatter Esav by saying “to see your face is like
seeing the face of God,” I feel a real humility in Yaakov’s words, a
sense that the long struggle has reached a turning point. Even though
Yaakov and Esav do not ultimately live together, they do achieve a
certain detente- which is a great improvement over plans to deceive or
kill one another!

Returning to the news of the day, I see the Conservative movement
turning from a place of struggle between competing factions (liberal
vs. conservative, progressive vs. traditional, etc.) to a new phase in
our journey together. The challenge now is to see, as Yaakov did, the
face of God even in those from whom we are estranged. There are those
in our organizations and synagogues who are outraged that the Law
Committee endorsed a perspective they understand as contrary to Torah,
and there are those who are furious that the Committee didn’t go far
enough in enacting policies of inclusion and progressive change.

Not only that, but as gay men and women become more visible in our
communities, some will struggle to see the face of God in them- may
they be blessed to do so. On the other hand, those of us who see this
week’s decision as a long-awaited step in the right direction must be
reminded that those who disagree are also our brothers and sisters,
equally passionate about Jewish ethics, community, and values, equally
endowed with the Divine Image.

“To see your face is like seeing the face of God”- to know the sacred
humanity of others is to be unable to hate, and may be even the first
step along the journey towards loving one’s neighbor as oneself- which
is, after all, one of the great principles of the Torah, no matter the
issue that may temporarily divide us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- before we get to our usual Torah portion links, here’s a
smattering of news and opinion on this week’s Law Committee decision.
The first link is to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which has a
special section of news and op-eds in the top right corner:

http://jta.org/

The Jewish Forward:

http://www.forward.com/articles/conservative-panel-votes-to-permit-gay-rabbis/

New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/07/us/07jews.html?em&ex=1165640400&en=ff825115d4e\
83c4a&ei=5087%0A

Time Magazine:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1567109,00.html

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