This summer I spent two mornings with Nivonim, leading the campers on a “tefillah field trip.” Together we took a close look at this verse from Parashat Bereshit:
ויברא אלוהים את האדם בצלמו
And God created man in his image.
We talked about the concept that every individual is a unique reflection of God. Using multiple mirrors, the campers created reflections of their faces, some reflecting back and forth infinitely.
The Hebrew word for face is פנים (panim), which is plural. Why is it plural if we only have one face? Parashat Toldot can help us answer this question, since Jacob seems to have different faces that emerge at different stages in his life.
In Bereshit 27:1, Isaac is an old man who can hardly see when he asks his oldest son, Esau, to hunt some game and cook it just the way he likes it. He tells Esau that after he brings him this meal he will give him a blessing before he dies.
Rebecca, his wife, overhears this and tells Jacob, the younger son, to disguise himself as Esau, in order to fool Isaac into giving him the blessing instead. Jacob does as his mother asks and approaches Isaac with the food he requested.
Isaac feels Jacob’s arms and hears his voice but the one thing Isaac cannot do is see Jacob’s face. If he could see his son’s face, he would know this is Jacob. But Jacob pretends to be Esau, hiding his face from his father.
Jacob succeeds in stealing Esau’s blessing, but must flee to Haran to escape Esau’s outrage.
As Jacob’s life journey continues, he no longer hides his face. In chapter 32, he prepares to meet Esau again. Jacob knows Esau has 400 hundred men with him; he knows Esau harbors a grudge against him because of the stolen blessing. Jacob prays to God to deliver him from the hand of his brother and admits that he fears him.
At night, before they meet, Jacob is left alone and wrestles with a man until the break of dawn.
In the morning Jacob says: ראיתי אלוהים פנים אל פנים
I have seen God face to face.
Jacob emerges from the struggle with a new name and new knowledge of who he is.
When Jacob and Esau meet, it is peaceful. Jacob says to his brother in 33:10
ראיתי פניך כראת פני אלוהים
To see your face is like seeing the face of God
The Etz Hayim humash comments on this verse, “I have seen the face of God. As a result, I am not the same person I was years ago, the one who tricked you and stole your blessing. I have learned to see you not as an intimidating rival, but as a person fashioned in God’s image.”
Part of Jacob’s story was finding out who he was. What he really looked like. What his true “face” was behind his face. At first his mother persuaded him to pretend to be his brother. When he said, “I am Esau,” part of him must have felt like Esau. Over the course of Jacob’s story, he sees God’s face and he finds his own face. He knows who he is.
Fast forward to the end of the book of Bereshit, when Jacob is an old man and he hears that his beloved son Joseph is alive. Jacob goes back to Egypt to be reunited with him and says,
אמותה הפעם אחרי ראותי את פניך
Now I can die, having seen your face
When Isaac was an old man, Jacob hid his face from him. Now Jacob is an old man and he has been blessed to see his son’s face. In between these bookends of his life, he struggled with a man (maybe himself?) and saw God face to face.
This summer the Nivonim campers looked in the mirror and saw their faces reflecting infinitely. They realized that they were seeing God face to face.
In the process, they gained a new understanding of the verse we recite each morning,
ברוך אתה ה אלוהינו מלך העולם שעשני בצלמו
Praised are You, God of the universe, who made me in God’s image.