Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parshat VaYishlach

Seeing the Face of God

The night before meeting Esav, Yaakov struggles with a man at Nachal Yabbok. As it turns out, the man is a divine being. He gives Yakov a new name: Yisrael. We have discussed why a divine being was fighting Yaakov in the first place and the significance of Yaakov's additional name in a previous Sedra Short (see

This week, I would like to discus Yaakov's reaction. "Yaakov named the place Peniel (lit. the face of God), for [he said,] "I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved" (Bereshit 32:30).

It is clear from this statement that Yaakov expected to die. Seeing divine beings is meant to be beyond the human narrative and so when he saw the angel, Yaakov should not have continued living.

Indeed, Moshe asks God "show me your glory" (Shemot 33:18), God responds that "you cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live (ibid 20)."

In fact, the first time that Moshe encountered God, he almost died. Moshe sees a burning bush in the wilderness and is surprised that the bush is not being consumed. He decides to have a better look. "The Lord saw that he had turned to see" and so quickly calls out saying "Do not come close" (Shemot 3:4-5). To be sure, as soon as Moshe realizes that God is within the bush, he "hid his face because he was afraid to look toward God (ibid 6).

Gidon also saw an angel and thought he was going to die. At first, Gidon thought that the angel giving him the mission to save Israel was an ordinary person and so Giodn refused to accept the mission. The angel decides that Gidon needs to understand that his mission is from God and so he reveals himself by performing a supernatural act and then disappearing.

Gidon then realized that he was an angel and said: "Alas, O Lord God! Because I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face" (Shoftim 6:22). He assumed he was going to die, so "the Lord said to him, "Peace be to you, fear not, you shall not die (ibid 23)".

Manoach and his wife, Shimshon's parents, also met an angel. Manoach also did not believe that he was an angel until the angel revealed himself.

"Manoach (then) knew that he was an angel of the Lord. Manoach said to his wife, 'We shall surely die, because we have seen God" (ibid 13:22). However, his wife seemed to be more intelligent than him. "But his wife said to him, "If the Lord wanted to kill us, He would not have received from our hand a burnt-offering and a meal-offering, and He would not have shown us all these things; and at this time He would not let us hear (such things) as these (ibid 23)".

While seeing only God himself would lead to death, as happened with Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu (see Shemot 34:10-11 and VaYikra 10:1-2), seeing angels would not lead o death.

Nevertheless, as is clear from the episodes recorded here, people, including Yaakov, were frightened about seeing all divine beings.

Perhaps the Torah is trying to give us a monotheistic message. Only God is truly a Divine Being. Everything else, including angels, is just his tools. They are not worthy of worship.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: "Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: Reuven and Bilha" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlach entitled "Struggling with the Present", appears at:

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