These words begin the final section of the Amidah, standing silent meditation, in the daily Jewish liturgy. I have whispered, chanted and sung the words so many times, that I ceased to hear them.
Until this week – when they spoke to me anew.
Sim shalom! Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad b’or panecha. Ki b’or panecha natata lanu, Hashem Elokeinu, Torat chayyim v’ahavat chesed u’tzedakah, u’vracha v’rachamim v’chayim v’shalom.
Grant peace! Bless us, our father, all as one with the light of your face. For with the light of your face you have given us – YHWH our God – a living teaching, a love of kindness, generosity, blessing, compassion, life and peace.
What a rich text, filled with Biblical allusions!
“Grant peace” is a quotation from the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23-27), which teaches that the light of God’s face grants peace. How can we catch that light and reach towards peace? We can, says the author of Sim Shalom, pursue spiritual study, develop a love of kindness, behave generously, bless others, cultivate compassion, and preserve life.
“With the light of your face you have given…” Jacob says something like that to his brother Esau when they reconcile (Genesis 33). Twenty years earlier, competing over their father’s blessing, they had split. Jacob prepares for their meeting by sending gifts of livestock. But Esau says, “I have so much now, keep what’s yours.” And Jacob replies, “Please take the gifts, because seeing your face is like seeing the face of God!” The light of Esau’s face has given Jacob peace; Jacob wants to give in return.
Decades later, Jacob feels his death is near. He calls his twelve sons to hear his final words (Genesis 49). They, too, had competed for their father’s attention; they, too, had reconciled. I imagine them insisting, “Bless us father, all as one!” Jacob has a different message for each one: a blessing, a prediction, a confession of unresolved anger. Yet he chooses to speak in front of the full group. Perhaps he thinks, “No more secrets! For twenty years, my secret plan to hoard our father’s blessing separated me from my brother Esau. Each of my sons is blessed in his own way. Let my children learn to live with their differences.”
Family can be a hard place. In family we learn that nothing — neither genetics nor upbringing nor experience — guarantees compatibility. We are often hurt, and sometimes justifiability slow to forgive. At the same time, family relationships may be inescapable. What a powerful place to learn kindness, generosity, blessing, compassion, life and peace! This, says the poet, is a living teaching, the Torah of ordinary life. Through the light of our relatives’ faces, we catch a glimpse of the light of God’s face.
American Thanksgiving has arrived. Amid all the debate about welcoming the Other from across the oceans, perhaps we can pause to welcome the Others already seated at our family and community tables. Let’s share our gratitude for the lessons of peace those closest to us have taught.
Click on the image for a 3-minute video about Jacob, Esau, and the face of the Other.
Photographs in the video: Laura Duhan Kaplan