Parashat Vayishlach tells of Yaakov’s dreaded but ultimately peaceful reunion with his brother, Esav. After the two meet, Esav respectfully refuses the lavish gifts that Yaakov had sent him, but Yaakov insists that he accept them, explaining, “now that I have seen your face like I have seen the face of God, and you have received me favorably” (33:10). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 75), explaining the comparison Yaakov draws between his meeting Esav and “meeting” God, comments, “Just as ‘the face of God’ is judgment, your face, too, is judgment.” The word “Elokim” in reference to God generally denotes the Almighty’s role as judge who holds us accountable for our actions. The Midrash thus understands Yaakov’s comparison between Esav and “penei Elokim” to mean that Esav was somehow a “judge” like God.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, suggests an explanation for this enigmatic Midrashic passage. God’s judgment is unique in that complete impartiality is maintained despite God’s being the other “party,” so-to-speak. No litigant can ever serve as judge for his own trial – except the Almighty. Anytime we are judged for our conduct, the other “litigant” is God, against whom we may have committed the offense in question. And yet, God is capable of serving as “Elokim,” as an honest, objective arbiter who fairly determines our guilt or innocence. As God transcends the human vengeful instinct as well as our limitations of knowledge and understanding, He is able to issue an accurate, just sentence despite the fact that He is the “victim” of the alleged offense.
It is this quality, Rav Ginsburg suggests, that Yaakov here attributes to Esav. Regardless of whether or not Esav was sincere (a matter that is subject to debate among the Tanna’im, as Rashi notes), Esav acted towards Yaakov in a forgiving, brotherly manner, despite Yaakov’s having deceived him. While Esav and his progeny would forever more be known for evil and violence, at this moment, at least outwardly if not genuinely, Esav rose above his resentment and angst and acknowledged Yaakov’s right to his blessings. At least for now, Esav was capable of viewing his brother with mature, honest objectivity, without concern for his personal interests. And thus Yaakov compared his brother to God, the only Being who can serve as an impartial judge while also being a litigant.
The Midrash here draws our attention to the difficulty of judging people honestly when our own feelings and personal interests are at stake. When people around us say or do things that negatively impact upon us, our instinct is to protest and cast blame. When we’re the “litigant,” when we have vested interest in the outcome of the “trial,” it is very difficult to remain objective. If there’s anything to learn from Esav, it is from this one moment when he rose above his own interests to assess Yaakov in an honest, objective manner. Rather than rush to criticize and accuse, we must try, as much as humanly possible, to judge others honestly and objectively even when we feel hurt and victimized.