The reconciliation of Jacob and his brother Esau is narrated in Genesis chapter 33. After an unfriendly parting, Jacob had been away from home for about 22 years. Now, after having married and begun a sizable family, he wishes to return to his ancestral home. He is frightened. In fact, he is terrified of what might happen when he meets his brother after all those years.
Jacob prays. He sends scouts. He sends messages of reconciliation and gifts. He divides his camp into two, so that in case Esau is hostile, at least part of his family will survive. Finally, unavoidably, Jacob himself approaches Esau, bows low, speaks in a subservient manner, and kisses his brother. Jacob has no way to know what to expect, and he is taking a great risk.
Jacob says something surprising: “When I saw your face it was like seeing the face of God…” (Genesis 33:10).
Is seeing the face of Esau really like seeing the face of God? Esau was ruddy and hairy, with rough skin. Is that what God looks like? What did Jacob mean?
Perhaps he was merely flattering Esau. Perhaps it was all a big suck-up. Or, to say it nicely, it was all diplomacy. This reading is consistent with the context suggested by the preceding verses. The Torah lesson here, as suggested by many rabbinic commentaries, is how to proffer servile blandishment to the powerful in order to avoid their wrath. This lesson will be called upon to guide relations with Roman, European and other oppressors over the ages.
Perhaps Jacob was trying to warn or frighten Esau. A midrash on this verse explains it this way:
Jacob mentioned God’s Name to Esau in order to intimidate him, to frighten him. How may Jacob’s mention of God be understood? By the parable of a man who invited his friend to dine with him. When the guest perceived that the host planned to murder him, he said, “This dish tastes like the dish I had in the royal palace.” “So he knows the king!” said the host to himself, and, seized with fear, he did not try to go through with his murderous scheme.
Even so it was with Jacob. As soon as he said to Esau, “For to see thy face is like seeing the face of God,” wicked Esau said to himself: “Since the Holy One brought him to such honor, I stand no chance against him.”
Jacob is saying, in other words, “Touch me, and you’ll have to answer to the Big Guy upstairs.” That will work only if Esau has a fear of God and believes that God somehow cares a whit about Jacob.
There is a third way to read this peculiar statement by Jacob. Perhaps Jacob had to overcome his own anger and fear by recognizing the Divine Spark in his brother. His brother was not all wickedness, but a person like himself capable of teshuva (repentance), personal growth and forgiveness. For Jacob to be able to brave conciliation, he first had to make clear in his own heart and his own mind that his brother was not pure evil but rather a human being like himself. Once he changed his own attitude, he was able to relate to his brother in a better way and his brother Esau consciously or subconsciously recognized that. This attitude, stemming from a recognition that we are created in God’s image, transformed the dynamic between the two brothers.
Now, what does it mean to be “created in God’s image”? It is a funny expression. The Baal Shem Tov, the populist 18th century Rabbi, put a particular twist on the idea of being created in God’s image.
An explanation of the phrase “Let us make a human in our image”: It is like this: A man who has a son, even if the son walks right before his eyes and goes away, will nonetheless have the image of the son inscribed in his mind. But of a man who has no son, you could not say that the image of the son that he will later have is inscribed in his mind, for he has not yet seen him and does not know what he looks like. This is the way of human beings. But concerning HaShem [God], one could indeed say that before HaShem created Israel, their image was already inscribed in HaShem’s mind. This is because in the case of HaShem the past and the future are one. The statement “Let us make a human” means “Let us make Israel,” who are called “human,” “in our image,” i.e., in the image and form that was inscribed in HaShem’s imagination. The statement “in our likeness” means that a human will now be made in the likeness that was previously in HaShem’s mind (Sefer Ba`al Shem Tov § 56).
In other words, when God says “Let us make the human in Our image” what is meant is “Let us make the human in the image that we already have formed in our mind” as it were.
The larger context in which this teaching of the Baal Shem Tov appears is one advocating the values of unconditional love, total humility, acceptance, and joy.
This unconditional love and forgiveness is expressed by Rabbi Shimon Menahem Mendel Wodnik in his commentary explaining the larger point of these teachings of the Baal Shem Tov:
This applies especially to one who sins against him or acted wickedly against him specifically, and he comes to him in need; he will wipe out from his heart all trace of the evil and will receive him with mercy and will be good to him in every way to the best of his ability” (Note 51 (9) by R’ Shimon Menahem Mendel Wodnik, on Sefer HaBeShT).
This notion of being good to one who has acted wickedly, of being nice to someone who was mean to you, is a description of the attitude one ought to hold, according to this pietist notion. Well and good. But what affect might this have on the one who was being wicked? If you’re good to someone who was mean to you, what should you expect in return?
Well, in the first place, it doesn’t matter. We are supposed to be nice, to be helpful, even if others are not. Our responsibility to do the right thing, to behave properly, to help our brothers and sisters is not conditional on their doing exactly the same.
A midrash describes the fulfillment of a specific related Biblical law, a halakha de-Oreita, in this way:
Rabbi Alexander said:
Two donkey drivers were walking by the way
and they hated each other.
One of their donkeys sat down.
The second driver saw it,
but kept going.
Then, after having passed,
this second driver thought:
It is written in the Torah,
“If you see the ass of one who hates you
lying under its burden,
you shall surely lift it up.”
Immediately the second driver returned
and helped the first to raise the donkey.
The first driver then began to think,
“So-and-so is thus my friend,
and I did not even know it.”
Both entered an inn
and ate and drank together.
What happened here? The second driver remembered the mitzva of helping others, even a meanie, and so he returned to help the driver whose donkey had the flat tire. Now this little story tells us exactly what was the dynamic that reconciled these two people. That’s what understanding and living according to the Torah can do for us.
I have suggested three ways to read Jacob’s words about seeing in Esau the face of God. Jacob’s words could have all of these meanings and are therefore all the more powerful. I prefer the third way, for I have faith that belief in the Godly spark in each person has the power to transform us and indirectly but substantially transform others as well. That is part of the saving power of Torah.