Truly Present To God And People

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

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Abraham ibn Ezra (12th Century Spain) insists that Jacob didn't mean God directly; he meant an angel.  And Radak (13th Century France), most boldly of all, argues that Jacob mentioned seeing the angel in order to intimidate Esau.  If Esau thought that an angel was present, he would refrain from harming his saintly brother. 

The Shocking Comparison

What can we do with Jacob's shocking comparison?  A starting point is to note that Jacob compares Esau to God not only by saying that seeing one is like seeing the other (a reminder that even an Esau is made in God's image), but he also demonstrates that one serves them in the same way.

As the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes, one brings gifts and sacrifices to worship God, and Jacob also brought gifts and offerings to placate his aggrieved sibling.  Perhaps what the Torah, and Ramban, are pointing out is that we communicate best not by relying on the superficial devices of words and thoughts, but rather by allowing our deepest parts to respond to the presence of the other. 

By approaching another person with reverence and warmth (since encountering them is like seeing the face of God), by showing our openness to their concerns and their fears (presenting offerings before exchanging words) we affirm the unique marvel of each individual.

Just as God asks not to be approached empty-handed, so too, human beings should be approached with offerings of respect, affection and marvel.  Each human being offers a unique embodiment of the godly and the mysterious.  We, like Jacob, can make that comparison explicit, by training ourselves to encounter God in everyone we meet.

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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.