The Face of God

Who here has seen the musical Les Miserable?  I still remember the first time I saw Les Mis –  I remember my parents taking my to the Wang Center in Boston.  It was amazing!  The moving stage, the costumes, the music, the emotion – I was blown away.

As I was reading this weeks Torah portion, one song from Les Mis kept popping into my head.  Picture the scene: Jean Valjean is on his deathbed.  The curtain between the living and the dead has been raised and he is joined by Eponine and Fantine.  And then his entire life is summed up in one of the most beautiful verses I have ever heard:

Click here to listen!

The final line that we just heard is actually a Victor Hugo original from the book, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Where do you see the face of God?  Think for a moment.  Is it in the faces of your children, your parents, your spouse, a total stranger?

In this week’s Torah portion, the progenitor of the Jewish people, Jacob, upon seeing his estranged brother Esau, says, “to see your face is to see the face of God.”

Lets take a step a back for a moment and see what lead us to this place.


  • Jacob tricks his brother out of his birthright and his fathers blessing
  • Jacob fled and hasn’t seen his brother for 20 years
  • And now the moment of reconciliation comes in this weeks portion
  • First, Jacob gets all his ducks in a row, and organizes his family and possession in a thoughtful strategic manner
  • Then Jacob goes to sleep and has the famous dream where he wrestles with a man, an angel, God, or himself, and comes out of this life changing nodal moment with a new name, Israel (one who wrestles with the divine) and names place Peniel (Face of God) because here he saw God face-to-face
  • The next morning it is time to meet his brother –
  • The anticipation is palpable
  • He first bows low seven times before Esau and present him with gifts
  • Esau comes running over- perhaps to kill him but instead falls upon his neck, weeps and kisses his brother
  • Jacob insists on giving him gifts – Esau says I have enough- you keep what’s yours
  • Jacob then utters those amazing words, “that to see your face is to see the face of God”

So why does Jacob say this to Esau? What does 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 be servile 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.

Or 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 fear by recognizing the Divine Spark in his brother. His brother was not that bad, but a person like himself capable of teshuva (repentance), personal growth and forgiveness. For Jacob to be able to brave reconciliation, he first had to make clear in his own heart and his own mind that his brother was not some other 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.

Over the past few months, we have been talking alot about starting a hunger relief program here at Rodeph Shalom.

As many of you know, SNAP (the supplemental nutrition assistance program) is being cut for many of our neighbors.  You may also know that besides the problems of food insecurity, there is also a very real problem in this neighborhood, of what is called a food desert.  A food desert is an area does not have access to any real grocery stores.  If you’ve ever driven up 12th or 13th street between here and Girard, you will see 5 or 10 little corner markets selling high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and salt.  They very rarely have any produce and when they do, it is often old and far from fresh.

In speaking with our friends at the 11th street Drexel Health center, I learned that biggest health problems facing this immediate neighborhood are diabetes, heart disease and hypertension – coincidence?

This is why our hunger task force is now exploring the idea of creating a neighborhood farmers market, to provide subsidized fresh local produce to families of the spring garden school and the surrounding neighborhood.

We can all be like Jacob.

First, Jacob has a dream.  We have a dream of helping the families in this neighborhood help themselves through providing low cost, healthy food.  Just as Jacob struggles in his dream, we too have struggled with how we can help.  Just as Jacob overcame his fear, we too must overcome the fear of the other to help those in need.

Next, we are getting our organized.  Just as Jacob sent his wife as and possessions across river to be prepared for his meeting with Esau, so too over the next months, we plan to do research with more community groups and figure out the best way to implement this idea.

Next Jacob presents Esau with gifts.  Esau, however, is proud like many of us, and does not want to accept them.  After meeting with Principal Robinson at Spring Garden school and meeting many of the parents there, I have come to see that folks in this neighborhood, even if they are on food stamps are proud as well.  They are not looking for a handout.  Which is why we don’t want to just give away free food.  We want to make healthy food available for folks in need and provide the education to help them help themselves.

This initiative is not just about the food.  It’s about meeting our neighbors and seeing in them the face of God.

This will not be easy.   But the reward will be great.  Let us remember the words of Victor Hugo and our forefather Jacob, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”