Truly Present To God And People

We can learn from Jacob's encounter with Esau to meet others as we would meet God.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Religious thinkers throughout the ages have pondered the question, "How do people have the audacity to stand in the presence of God?"  Finite in power, wisdom and longevity, human beings are paltry and insignificant when compared to a supernova or to a galaxy, let alone to the eternal Creator who fashioned those marvels.  How, then, do we have the temerity to place ourselves before God, to address God, and to argue with God?

The same question might also be leveled toward the paradox of standing in the presence of another human being.  Each of us is a universe in miniature--replete with our own depths and eddies, our hidden doubts and fears and talents.  None can ever fully know themselves, let alone claim to truly know another person.  So how do we summon the nerve to  address each other with intimacy and familiarity?

The inexpressible depth of one human soul exposed to the unfathomable profundity of another, the encounter of unknown meeting ought to silence the entire universe.  It is a marvel that we can reach each other at all.  It is a paradox that the finite creatures, humanity, presume to call to God with hope.

A Similar Dilemma

This week’s Torah portion expresses a similar dilemma, contrasting the encounter of two human beings with an encounter with the Holy Infinite One. On his way back to the Land of Israel, Jacob finally re-establishes contact with his brother, Esau.  Years before, Jacob had deeply offended his brother, and now, as an adult and a sage, he hopes to restore some familial connection between them.  But how can he communicate across the silence of acrimony, hidden hurt and lost years? 

Jacob's words are instructive.  He presents his brother with a series of gifts, and then says to Esau, "To see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably."  What a remarkable comment!  Jacob compares greeting his brother with theophany itself, argues that exchanging words with his brother is nothing less than revelation! 

So problematic was Jacob's link of his brother and God that generations of Jewish scholars backed away from his audacious connection. Saadia Gaon (10th Century Babylon) interprets Jacob's remarks as comparing the vision of Esau to "the face of the prominent."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.