Facing Our Blessings, Part 1

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat Toldot

In Parashat Toldot, Ya’akov pretends to be someone else in order to get a blessing. Often, his character becomes the focal point as we try to sort out whether this was a strategic act of courage or cruel trickery. But the experience resonates beyond the specific contours of his character. When Yitzhak blesses Ya’akov, disguised as Esav, it introduces a gap between being seen for who we are and finding blessing. It leaves us yearning for the kind of blessing that comes not from hiding ourselves but from being fully recognized. We’ll explore different aspects of the relationship between recognition and blessing over this week and next. Next week we’ll explore the deeper meanings of “recognition.” This week, our focus will be the significance of faces and being seen.

When Ya’akov comes before Yitzhak, Yitzhak does not recognize him (וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ, Genesis 27:23). He is not “seen” by his father. Through midrash, we get a sense of how much Ya’akov desperately wanted to be fully seen, even as he remains physically disguised. He drops subtle hints. When Yitzhak asks how he prepared the meat so quickly, Ya’akov responds that God made an animal happen to appear before him (27:20). Midrash points to a dimension beneath the surface in this statement:1 Ya’akov wants to remind Yitzhak of times that animals suddenly appeared at significant moments in his own life. When he was about to be sacrificed by his father, a ram miraculously appeared (22:13).2 When it was time for him to marry, camels suddenly appeared, ushering in his meeting Rivkah (24:63).3Midrash ties these moments together, not only by the sudden appearance of an animal, but because they share the phrase, “He lifted his eyes and he saw” (וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא). These were moments of seeing what could not be seen before, and they propelled Yitzhak towards the legacy of blessing.

Therefore, in saying that God made an animal appear, Ya’akov may really mean to say something like this to his father: 

When it seemed like you had no pathway towards blessing, God made an animal appear that altered the course of your life. I too want this moment to be a turning point. I want you to “lift your eyes and see” me in a way you never have. I want to be included in this legacy of blessing. 

Yitzhak fails to “see” Ya’akov or hear this message. He will only bless Esav. This un-seenness stings. Ya’akov walks away with the blessing, but it is a blessing born of evasiveness and alienation.

Yet, in this profoundly evasive scene the Torah oddly draws attention to Yitzhak’s face. When Ya’akov leaves, it does not just say he left Yitzhak, but that he left “from before Yitzhak’s face” (מֵאֵת פְּנֵי יִצְחָק אָבִיו, Genesis 27:30). Why use this uncommon phrasing4 that stresses Yitzhak’s face when Yitzhak could not actually see Ya’akov, and the entire encounter involved avoiding Yitzhak’s gaze?

A passage in the Talmud highlights the mention of Yitzhak’s face in this verse, and puts it into conversation with other verses about faces, as part of an extended discussion trying to determine the dimension of a “face.” This is important for measuring the ark cover (kaporet) and the faces of the two cherubim upon it.5 The Talmud contrasts the verse where Ya’akov departs from his father’s “face” (מֵאֵת פְּנֵי יִצְחָק אָבִיו) after taking the blessing, with a later verse where Ya’akov encounters Esav’s face upon his return from Lavan’s house (33:10). There, Ya’akov says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹקִים). The Talmud wonders: does the word “face” suggest a human face with measurable dimensions? Or does it indicate God’s face that is of another scale entirely? The Talmud then brings up a third kind of face, that of a cherub. The discussion ends with the conclusion that cherubs have two different sized faces: one large, like an adult, and one small, like a child.

If we move beyond the technical argument of this passage and focus on what images it weaves together, the cherubim on the cover of the ark become a symbolic intertext for the story of Ya’akov and his quest to be seen. In its discussion of the ark and cherubim, it brings together verses at the bookends of a critical chapter in Ya’akov’s life, focusing on the word “face” in each. When Ya’akov departs from his father’s face, he is evasive—trying to avoid direct encounter with Yitzhak and also, obviously, Esav. In the later scene, after years far away as a fugitive, Ya’akov returns and encounters Esav’s face directly. In this encounter, Ya’akov tries to undo what went wrong in the earlier scene when he took Esav’s blessing. Looking Esav in the face, he says “Please take my blessing” (קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי, Genesis 33:11).

What has happened to enable Ya’akov to go from his evasiveness to direct encounter? These two scenes of faces bring our attention to a third scene between the two. Just before encountering Esav, Ya’akov wrestles with an angel and names that place “the face of God.”

בראשית לב:לא

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹקִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃


Genesis 32:31

So Jacob named the place Peniel meaning, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”


Ya’akov relates that he saw God face to face, suggesting that not only did he see God, but God also saw him. While the plain meaning of his statement is that he is grateful to have been saved from the danger of encountering God so directly, in light of the history of not being seen by his own father, these words could take on a different meaning. Perhaps this first moment of being fully seen—not by his earthly father, but by his divine Father—actually has a powerfully healing effect, “my life has been preserved.” After being seen by God, he was ready to encounter Esav directly.

The Talmud’s seemingly arbitrary collection of verses about faces encapsulates Ya’akov’s journey. The evasiveness, anxiety, and ultimately direct encounter he experienced are embedded in the concrete image of the cherubim facing each other atop the ark. These faces hold the dynamic flow between alienation and recognition, and they represent a blurriness and overlap between encountering human faces and God’s face. The alienation we may feel from others, and the alienation we may feel from God become intertwined. The possibility of seeing others and “seeing” God are also intertwined. In the posture of being face to face, there is the possibility of nothing less than the revelation of God’s presence, just as God’s voice emerged from between the two cherubim atop the ark.

These two faces in the holiest place—father and son, two brothers, or God and human—reflect the hopes we, like Ya’akov, have for relationships where we see the other and are fully seen. May we all find our way to these face to face relationships, and may they be a source of true revelation and blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת תולדות פרשה סה:יט: "ויאמר כי הקרה י"י אלהיך לפני ר' יוחנן ור' שמען בן לקיש חד מינהון אמר אם לקורבנך המציא לך דכת' וישא אברהם את עיניו וירא והנה איל (בראשית כב:יג) למאכלך על אחת כמה וכמה, וחרנה אמר אם לזיווגך המציא לך דכת' וישא עיניו וירא והנה גמלים באים (שם כד) מאכלך על אחת כמה וכמה."

2 Note that this midrash relies on another midrashic interpretation, where the ram was not always there but was miraculously created in that very moment.

3 The verse at the well uses the language הקרה, but also the midrash refers specifically to Yitzhak lifting his eyes to see the camel arriving upon Rivkah and the servant’s return.

4 The phrase מאת פני occurs only six times in Tanakh.

Sukkah 5b: אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: רב הונא ״פני״ ״פני״ גמר. כתיב הכא: ״אל פני הכפורת״, וכתיב התם: ״מאת פני יצחק אביו״. ונילף מפנים של מעלה, דכתיב: ״כראות פני אלהים ותרצני״! תפשת מרובה לא תפשת, תפשת מועט תפשת. ונילף מכרוב, דכתיב: ״אל הכפורת יהיו פני הכרובים״! אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: גמירי אין פני כרובים פחותין מטפח, ורב הונא נמי מהכא גמיר. ומאי כרוב? אמר רבי אבהו: כרביא, שכן בבבל קורין לינוקא רביא. אמר ליה אביי: אלא מעתה, דכתיב: ״פני האחד פני הכרוב ופני השני פני אדם״, היינו כרוב היינו אדם! אפי רברבי ואפי זוטרי.