(כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים” (ל”ב:ל”א”
The following d’var torah is based on a shiur given by Rav Shalom Miller, one of my rabeim at Machon Lev, and is dedicated in commemoration of the recent tenth yahrtzeit of my great-grandmother Ellen Schloss Neuman, מרים בת פנחס ע”ה. As Mark Twain once said “It’s not the size of the man in the fight but the fight in the man.” My great-grandmother a”h, though small in stature, was always strong enough to make the right choices no matter how difficult. This d’var torah, based on a similar idea, should be לעילו נשמתה.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, יעקב אבינו is in a very bad situation. He is described as “וירא יעקב ויצר לו- Yaakov was frightened and distressed” as he prepares to encounter his estranged older brother עשו for the first time in over twenty years since the story of the ברכה. In his fear, יעקב prepares for the encounter in three main ways; diving the camp into two, praying to השם, and preparing a tribute to appease עשו.
These methods of preparation highlight a habit that יעקב has developed, something which is reflected in almost all of the stories of him the חומש until this point: running away from and avoiding a conflict. When יעקב receives the ברכה that עשו believed he was entitled to, instead of sticking around and confronting the problem, יעקב waits for the conflict to dissolve, and when it didn’t, he ran away. After יעקב’s seven year employment to לבן for רחל, when he finds up that he was married to לאה due to לבן’s trickery, instead of confronting לבן and demanding the wife that he is entitled to, he consents to work another seven years. Even יעקב’s departure from לבן was as anti-confrontational as he could make it, and יעקב only confronted לבן after he runs after יעקב and demands his return. The מדרש teaches that יעקב, in planning his route back to באר שבע, took a very roundabout route to avoid אדום. All in all, we can see that יעקב has a track record for avoiding confrontations, and this is reflected in his preparations for meeting עשו.
Yaakov, having made all of these physical and spiritual preparations to encounter עשו, walks off on his own and thinks about how he could better approach the encounter (“ויותר יעקב לבדו”), when, all of the sudden, “ויאבק איש עמו”- Yaakov is attacked by a man and wrestles him. The old יעקב, when ambushed by a man, would’ve run away from the confrontation. This fight already shows an internal change within יעקב- that instead of running away from this conflict, he takes it head on, and is successful, even when the מלאך in his desperation to leave dislocates his גיד הנשה, hip-socket. Seeing that in confrontation, he was able to succeed by fighting instead of shying away, יעקב realizes that this is exactly how he should approach his encounter with עשו- by confronting him instead of trying to appease him.
This internal transformation gives an interesting meaning to יעקב’s new name. When the מלאך renames יעקב to ישראל and says “כי שרית עם אלקים ועם אנשים ותוכל,” we can interpret this as “For you Can [and Will] confront people and Will overcome [them].” יעקב, realizing that he has experienced a huge transformation, names this place פניא-ל, because “כי ראיתי אלקים פנים אל פנים,” which hints to the פנימי/internal transformation he went through.
As the newly-named ישראל returns to his people we already notice a few subtle changes in his attitude: As יעקב returns to his camp, we see that he returns to his “camp”- NOT “camps,” which he had previously devided. Now that יעקב realized the importance of confronting his problems instead of hiding away from them, he realized that instead of dividing his camp, he should instead show strength by approaching עשו with his family and confronting him face-on. When יעקב approaches עשו, he starts out by trying to appease עשו, but unlike his previous attempts, יעקב‘s appeasing complements have a hidden steel behind them. יעקב tells Eisav “ראיתי פניך כראות פני אלקים“, which on a basic level seems to be an elaborate attempt to appease עשו, comparing him to G-d. However, the wording of this oh-so subtle complement contains the same word we’ve seem previously in this section: פנים. Based on our explanation of יעקב‘s change, we can interpret this complement as “I’ve seen your face- it’s like seeing the face of G-d [whom I’ve fought and won, so don’t mess with me],” with a רמז from פניך and פני to פנימי, the internal transformation that יעקב went through. Because יעקב changed his attitude towards confrontation, and decided to face עשו out of strength instead of shunning their confrontation, יעקב merited to walk away from the battle unscathed, as the פרשה continues to relate: “ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם– Yaakov survived the encounter and arrived at Shechem complete (unscathed from his battle with Eisav).
Rav Yoel Bin Nun, a renowned teacher at Yeshivat Har Ezion (“The Gush”), learns a very interesting lesson from יעקב’s transformation. He teaches that Jewish people are now in a unique position- for the first time in thousands of years, we have our own state. Part of running a country is getting involved in complicated issues, many of which are outside of the Jewish “bubble” (such as foreign relations, international trade, defense etc). In order for מדינת ישראל to truly succeed economically and securely, the leaders must embrace the outside world “פנים אל פנים” like ישראל did, and not hide away from them. Only through this can a Jewish state be successful.
I believe that Rav Bin Nun’s teaching applies on a personal level as well. All of us have a daily struggle between יעקב and עשו- a battle between our good and bad inclinations. Some people believe that the best way to win this fight is to shy away from the battle- to hide from the world by tuning out anything that could involve the evil inclination, such as modern technology, the internet, and current events. According to them, this is the ideal way to handle to יצר הרע- by running away from it and avoiding it. The new-and-improved Yaakov Avinu obviously held otherwise. Based on the lesson that we’ve learned from Yaakov Avinu’s transformation, we can see that the ideal way to truly defeat the יצר הרע is through strength, by confronting it front-on and defeating it, resisting the evil inclination instead of hiding from it. Through this we can truly merit to be בני ישראל. Shabbat Shalom.