Vayechi

Texts and beliefs By Georgia Kaufmann 21st Dec 2017

There is a poetry and symmetry in the death bed blessing of Israel/Jacob and his sons that plays on and mirrors Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau. When Jacob was blessed by his father it was under false pretences; he literally hid who he was, hid his face from his blind father, pretended to be Esau, and through this deception gained the blessing of the first-born. In this week’s parashah, Joseph presents his two sons to his dying father. Jacob crosses his hands over their heads, despite Joseph’s intervention, and like his father before him – but this time openly – he gives the second son, Ephraim, the blessing of the first-born. This time there is no cheating or deceit: he is facing up to his actions. 

Everett Fox points out that the word ‘face’ is a running motif in the Jacob story. Jacob presents a false face to his father; Laban hides the face of his bride at Jacob’s wedding. In Genesis 32:21-22, preparing to meet Esau, Jacob says: 

“For he said to himself:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
With the gift that goes ahead of my face;
Afterward, when I see his face,
Perhaps he will lift up my face.” 

Then, the same night, Jacob wrestles with God and names the place Peniel – Face of God. The next day he likens Esau’s face to God’s face (33:10). Much later, Jacob declares that he is ready to die when finally he sees Joseph’s face again (46:30). 

The word face, panim, comes from the verb panah, which means to turn from or to something, or to turn around. A word with the same derivaton as panim is pnim, which means inside, or innermost. ‘Face’ and ‘inside’, panim and pnim, are closely tied. When you face someone, you have access into them, into their innermost thoughts and feelings. Or at least you should. To face someone implies honesty and trust. 

In Jacob’s life he deceived his father by not coming face to face with him; he wrestled with God and came face to face with him; he was deceived into marrying Leah by not coming face to face with her; he won back Esau’s love by facing up to him; and he comes to peace when he finally sees his beloved Joseph’s face again. The words he utters when Joseph brings him his sons to be blessed have greater poignancy with this history in mind (Gen. 48:11): 

“Israel said to Joseph:
I never thought to see your face (again).”

It is as if each time Jacob sees Joseph again, he is reminded of his loss and subsequent joy. He has deceived and been deceived, he has betrayed and been betrayed, he has fought, lost his greatest loves, and survived. His deliberate, open, unhidden crossing of his hands and ostentatiously giving the second son, Ephraim, the first blessing, is nothing like his own covert and treacherous theft of his father’s blessing from Esau. The deliberate knowingness of his actions, his refusal to be corrected by Joseph, shows that he has become a man able to face up to himself, or as we might say now, to look at himself in the mirror. 

Georgia Kaufmann is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue. She writes fiction, and trained and worked as an anthropologist and demographer

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