Face to Face: An Exercise in Theme Words

  • by: Moshe Sokolow

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Elul 5753, pp. 30-32. Appears here with permission.
In Gen. 32:20, Yaakov’s emissaries to Esav recite the message with which they had been dispatched. Let us first see how that message is recorded in some English translations:

  1. Jewish Publication Society (1917): “For he said: ‘I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept me.’ “
  2. Jewish Publication Society (1962): “For he reasoned: ‘If I propitiate him with presents in advance and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.'”
  3. Aryeh Kaplan: The Living Torah (1981): “[Jacob] said [to himself]: ‘I will win him over with the gifts that are being sent ahead, and then I will face him. Hopefully, he will forgive me.'”

While each one of these translations (and the many others not cited) is correct, i.e., each renders the individual Hebrew expressions with appropriate English ones, none of them even hints at the delightful word game being played by the Torah through its fourfold use of the Hebrew word panim. The verse in the original reads:
כי-אמר אכפרה פניו במנחה
ההלכת לפני, ואחרי-כן אראה
פניו אולי ישא פני
This is our introduction to the topic of the theme-word (also called leitwort; Hebrew: millah manhah) a significant, if often overlooked feature of Tanakh.
Now that I have your attention, let me go back to the beginning and present the subject anew, as I might present it before a class studying parashat Vayishlah. The class I have in mind should be an eighth grade class (reviewing Sefer Bereishit for a second time) or higher, since the assignments include the use of a Concordance, and presume at least an elementary acquaintance with Biblical Hebrew grammar and syntax. It doesn’t matter at this point whether the usual language of class instruction is Hebrew or English, since one of the points we hope to make here is how English translations of Tanakh (both printed ones as well as the students’ own) can be used – as one uses parshanim – to draw attention to points of interest which might otherwise escape our notice.
Step One: The Opening
Aim: To call the students’ attention to the observation made in the Introduction, namely: English translations of the Torah fail to reflect the fourfold repetition of the word panim. Breaking this down, the specific goals are to:

  1. Note the repetition
  2. Appreciate that each use of panim represents a different expression or figure of speech
  3. Realize that figures of speech cannot easily be translated literally
  4. Be aware that translators have to decide whether to be more faithful to the original language – by preserving the literal sense of “face,” or to the target language – by replacing the Hebrew with similar English figures of speech, even if they don’t preserve the literal sense of “face.”

To achieve these goals, there are basically two preliminary options; the choice will have to be determined by the specific strengths and needs of the class:

  1. Give the students the pasuk in Hebrew, and have them translate it into English themselves.
  2. Give them one of the English translations, and have them try to reconstruct the Hebrew original. 1.

Either way, this exercise should bring the fourfold repetition to their attention, as well as sensitize them to the complexities of translation.
Step Two: The Middle
Aim: To have the students discover the reason for the repetition. In terms of specific tasks or goals, we want them to understand:

  1. That the fourfold appearance of one word in a single pasuk is not accidental
  2. That through the use of this word – to be identified now as a “theme-word” – the Torah challenges us to discover the reason for its repetition
  3. That a Concordance is the best tool for discovering the different usages of words in the Tanakh.

Here again there is a choice of didactic approaches:

  1. Have them research the noun panim in a Concordance, locate all of its appearances, in its several forms, in the context of this narrative episode, and draw whatever conclusions they can regarding its repetition in our pasuk.
  2. Give them the list of textual appearances, and have them draw their own conclusions, as in number 1.2

Here are the pertinent verses:

וירא יעקוב את פני לבן והנה
איננו עמו כתמול שלשום (לא:ב)י

ויאמר להן, ראה אנכי את פני
אביכן כי איננו אלי… (לא:ה)י

אכפרה פנוי במנחה ההלכת
לפני…אראה פניו…ישא פני… (לב:כ)י

ויעבר המנחה על פניו והוא
לן בלילה ההוא בתוך המחנה (לב:כא)י

ויקרא יעקב את שם המקום פניאל
כי ראיתי אלוהים פנים אל פנים (לב:ל)י

ולקחת מנתי מידי כי על כן
ראיתי פניך כראות פני אלוהים (לג:י)י

Step Three: The Conclusion
Aim: To demonstrate that the fourfold use of the noun panim in our pasuk is connected to the other appearances of this noun in the context of this narrative episode. Taken all together they provide us with a glimpse of Yaakov’s state of mind at the moment of his anxiety-ridden reunion with his brother, Esav. Specifically, our goals include:

  1. Appreciating that the Tanakh rarely gives us explicit information about its characters’ motivations and states of mind
  2. Realizing that, in spite of (a), the Tanakh often provides indirect information about those same characters by means of various literary devices – among them, “theme- words”
  3. Recognizing that the identification of “theme-words” throughout Tanakh, the use of a Concordance to ascertain the full range of meanings of these words, and the consultation with appropriate translations (or dictionaries), can provide significant insights.

With regard to didactics, the choices widen considerably. Since individual styles vary so greatly, and since there are several plausible interpretations of the repetition of panim, I will present my reading of the text and leave its didactic implementation up to each individual teacher.
The first pasuk we cited in this context,
וירא יעקוב את פני לבן והנה
איננו עמו כתמול שלשום
tells us that Yaakov knew that Lavan’s attitude toward him had changed (for the worse) because he could see it on his face. This is not difficult to explain because we all have had experiences with people, including ourselves, whose feelings were “betrayed” by the looks on their faces. 3
The second pasuk reinforces our interpretation of the first. The third pasuk, our own, we will skip for a moment, coming to the fourth pasuk which we quoted:
ויעבר המנחה על פניו והוא
לן בלילה ההוא בתוך המחנה
This pasuk reminds us that sometimes the word panim just means face. The expression al penei means “in the presence of,” “in front of,” as in the several examples we have already had in Sefer Bereishit (here’s another opportunity to use the Concordance), and signifies that Yaakov supervised the dispatch of his presents personally.
Returning now to our pasuk, having seen one instance, each, of the literal and figurative use of panim, we can examine each of the four appearances it makes here:

  1. Baminhah haholekhet lefanai is the easiest, since lifnei like al penei takes “face” as literally as possible. The gift was dispatched as we have already noted, in Yaakov’s presence; it travels “in front of” him, “before” him.
  2. +3. akhaperah panav and yissa panai are figures of speech which pertain, respectively, to the seeking and granting of forgiveness.
    • The verb k”pr means, literally, to cover over [cf. God’s instructions to Noah concerning the ark, Gen. 6:14: “vekhafarta otah mibayit umihutz bakofer” cover it, inside and out, with pitch.]. When applied – as in our case – to the face, it means, “let me cover over his face [by this present so that he doesn’t see the offence I have given him].”
    • The verb n”sa means to lift or carry, and when applied to the face it means to show favor or be gracious [cf. the priestly blessing: “yissa Hashem panav eilekha,” or the prohibition against judicial favoritism: “lo tissa panim bamishpat,” Deut. 10:17].
  3. We’re back now to “aharei ken er’eh panav” which we have already seen in the case of Lavan means to tell how someone is feeling.

Putting all four elements together, Yaakov’s message is: I will try to appease him by means of the present I have sent before me. After Esav receives it, I will look him in the face and see if he has forgiven me.
Finally we are ready for the last pair of pesukim cited:

ויקרא יעקב את שם המקום פניאל
כי ראיתי אלוהים פנים אל פנים

ולקחת מנתי מידי כי על כן
ראיתי פניך כראות פני אלוהים

Yaakov, having wrestled with a man who bore a sublime appearance,4 named the location of that nocturnal encounter “peni’el” in memory of his having stood up to that man “face to face.”
When at long last he gets “face to face” with his brother Esav, and “looks him in the eye” (as it were), he notices something familiar about Esav’s face: it is also the face of an “elohim.” The juxtaposition of these two pesukim leads us to an even more far-reaching conclusion: Esav’s face is the one Yaakov saw on his nocturnal adversary.
What does this mean? I would suggest we begin, a la Rambam,5 by declaring that night-time wrestling match a vision, not necessarily a prophecy, though a dream will do nicely. Yaakov, about to become reunited with the brother he tricked out of a birthright and a blessing (note the word play in bekhorah and berakhah), is having, not unreasonably and not unnaturally, pangs of conscience over the deeds which threatened his life and caused this long separation. What could be more natural – according to even a “layman’s” understanding of human psychology – than for an anxious Yaakov, in a dream, to see himself locked in mortal combat with his brother!6
When, reunited in an embrace with Esav (“vayehabekeihu” Gen. 33:4), he peers anxiously into his brother’s face looking for the signs of either forgiveness or enmity, he recognizes the face of his dream of the night before and remarks, “I have seen this face of an elohim, and it has favored me” (33:10).
Since I have already alluded, however briefly, to the word play inherent in berakhah- bekhorah, I cannot pass up this opportunity to make one last observation on the very next pasuk (33:11): “kah na et birkhati asker huvat lakh” (Please accept my blessing which has been conveyed to you.)
Notice the unusual appearance here of the word “blessing,” particularly because five times already Yaakov has consistently used only the word “gift,” minha.7 It appears as though the moment Yaakov is confronted – in the person of Esav – with his guilt over the earlier episode involving the blessing (as explained above) he inadvertently substitutes the highly charged word berakha for the intended noncommittal minha.
An Afterward
One final observation relating to the matter of translations: there actually is one very recent English translation of the Torah which preserves the multiple use of panim here, just as it labors to preserve all such uses of “theme-words” throughout the Torah as well as translating each Hebrew word (actually, verbal root) with the same English equivalent as consistently as possible.
This method, which was pioneered by Martin Buber and Franz Rsenzweig in their German translation of the Torah earlier in this century (Buber actually coined the term “leitwort”), has been followed by Everett Fox in his translations In the Beginning, 8 of Bereishit and These are the Names, of Shemot. His translation of the pasuk on which this essay focuses, is:
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!
(The gift crossed over ahead of his face…)
As Fox comments in the concluding portion of his introduction: “Rather than carrying across (translating) the content of the text from one linguistic realm to another, I have tried to involve the reader in the experience of giving it back (rendering), of returning to the source and recreating some of its richness.” 9
Herein lies a great insight into the way we teach Tanakh to yeshiva students who, by and large, have the capacity to “render,” to return to the original Hebrew text and enjoy its richness. Their personal “involvement” in reading and deciphering the Torah will make its acquisition [as in kinyan Torah] all the more meaningful and, hopefully, lasting.

Each teacher can use whichever translation is most appealing. I find Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah to be the most reliable one, consistent with both rabbinic tradition and the scientific – historical, philological – approach.

A class that has no experience with a Concordance should not be expected to locate the words themselves. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful opportunity to enable them to experience this. It is advisable, however, to wait until the entire lesson is over, lest the interruption detract from the principle aim which is “theme-words.” After the lesson is done, you may go back a step or two and show them how you used a Concordance to find the list of pesukim which you gave to them.

Think of all the expressions or figures of speech we use in English which reflect this, such as: saving or losing face, “poker-faced,” “masking” feelings (so as not to betray them). etc. Or, in Hebrew: ro’ah panim (Kohelet 7:3) means sadness; yitav panim (Proverbs 15: 13), to gladden; naflu panekha (Gen. 4:5 -6), to be displeased.

cf. Radak on Ezekiel 1:1, “va’eire mar’ot elohim” who points out that “elohim” is often used in Tanakh as a form of hyperbole:
רוצה לומר, מראות גדולות
ונפלאות. כי דרך הכתוב,
כשרוצה להגדיל הדבר, סומך
אותו לאל; כמו עיר גדולה לאלהים

cf. Ramban on Gen. 18:1.

As a “layman,” again, I know that dreams cannot always be described in accurare detail, hence Yaakov’s uncertainty about the identity of the man with whom he struggled, save that he was an elohim, someone exceptional.

cf. 32:13,18,20,21 and 33:10.

New York: Schocken, 1983.

Ibid. p.XXIII