High Holy Days 5783/2022

silhouette of couple looking at each other

Face to Face

We read in Deuteronomy 5:4, Panim be-fanim dibber YHWH ba-har mi-tokh ha’esh

Face to face YWHW spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire—

And we read further in Deuteronomy 34 that God spoke to Moses face to face, here using an alternate locution for the close encounter, panim el panim.

Earlier in Scripture, in Genesis 32:31, we read of Jacob wrestling face to face with a mysterious stranger—variously interpreted as a messenger, angel, Jacob’s inner self, icon of his brother Esau, and of the divine itself: Va-yiqra Ya’aqov shem ha-maqom Peni’el, ki ra’ita Elohim panim el panim, va-tinatzel nafshi. So Jacob named the place Peniel, “the face of God.” For I have seen the divine face to face—panim el panim—yet my life has been preserved.”

What does it mean to stand Face-to-Face with other being—present, not hiding? In many ways, it is the Face-to-Face encounter that stands at the center of spiritual intimacy, as we (and so too, the Other) dare to say Hineni (Here I am).

The phrase “Face-to-Face” has, I think, taken on renewed meaning in these liminal days, as we tentatively return to in-person meetings after two and a half years of COVID. Or perhaps more accurate to this moment, as we oscillate between showing up “in person” (be it with a mask or without) and going back to Zoom. I don’t like to speak of Zoom as the virtual and the “in person” as the real, for they are different modes of real. Perhaps the digital and the non-digital, or better, the digital and the ”in person,” the latter being a less derivative/retronymic way of naming the non-digital! By “in person,” I mean where we share not only the visual and soundscape (assuming we are so abled) but also share a GPS location and intermix molecules. And yet, as I write these words in early August/mid-Menachem Av, there is a looming not-knowing: how will we show up for the Days of Awe? In what form or modality will we meet?

Anticipating a face-to-face meeting, I have asked: What might stir in us when we see the face of loved one after a long pause, or when we meet a baby for the first time in person—not only on Zoom? Ah, the smell of a newborn keppele! What happens as we (in the words of the Talmud) both see and are seen, lir’ot, af lera’ot? What do we see again (a remembering), and what do we see anew, with fresh eyes? What sense of joy and gratitude bubbles up from the “in person” meeting, and what sense of melancholy and awareness of loss follow in the wake?

The very phrase “face to face” implies a kind of mutuality, a being-present rather than a seeming or posing, a letting-the-other-in while simultaneously being-let-in (as Buber wrote so vividly in his description of I-Thou encounters). For it takes courage to look more fully at the sheer presence of the Other, and a kind of acceptance to let the other in, to glimpse our warts, our beauty, our vulnerability. Hineni, here am I, our bodies say—not hiding. Or more provisionally: I feel safe enough to begin to unfold; and brave enough to be present to what will happen. To bear witness and bear with-ness (as my friend Rabbi Irwin Keller puts it.)

As the three Biblical quotations above suggest, the phrase panim el panim or panim be-fanim have powerful theological resonance in Jewish traditions. Before delving more deeply into face-to-face interaction, I’d like to focus on the Face itself. Whence the power of the human Face, or “the divine Face,” p’nei ha-Shem [YHWH], a term that connotes radical presencesheer Being that is viscerally registered? I’d like to suggest that there is something powerful and uncanny in the Face, and that this is captured in the connotations of the Hebrew word itself. Like the divine Name, YHWH (meaning the One who simultaneously Is-Was-Will Be) the word panim contains layered, even paradoxical, worlds of meaning, olam u-melo’o

Like that other God-word Elohim—the single God that is signified by a plural suffix—the Hebrew word, panim-—a face—is written in the plural, suggesting that a single face contains multiple layers or facets (pan-im). The One that contains the Many. And how apt that is: for each of us, in our surfaces and our in our visceral depths, in our DNA and our biographies, contains multitudes. As the great Michigan-born jazz singer Abbey Lincoln once put it, “I got some people in me.”

But panim not only encapsulates the One and the Many. Just as YHWH cannot be straightforwardlypronounced and defies simple gendering, the word panim appears to be masculine in voice (with the -imending), yet it is grammatically feminine, as in panim hadashot (a new face or faces, with the -ot suffix). It is as though the Face were speaking a kind of queer, more inclusive Hebrew. (Like Elohim and the gender fluid pronoun “they,” the plural tracks singular).

As with number and gender, so too in the dimension of space! Panim’s cognate p’nei [face of] connotes the surface (sur-face) of things—al p’nei ha-shetah—while p’nim or p’nimah refer to interiority, a moving inward. Shifting to the realm of time, the cognate lifnei [literally, towards the face] connotes something that comes before, while lifnim—same root— connotes that which lies beyond. So like YHWH, that gerund expressing God’s all-embracing is-was-will-be’ness (HoWeH, HaYaH, YeHeH), panim is that singular noun that contains the Many, which intermixes the masculine and feminine, which connotes both surface and depth, that which lies before and that which comes after, further on.

And yet in its core-meaning, panim connotes Presence, as in qabbalat panim [a reception]a receiving that is taking place NOW. As Freud keenly noted, when a word means a thing and its opposite, pay attention! I add: when this davar ve-hippukho extends in so many dimensions, pay very close attention. Meditate on this resonant word, and place it al levavekha, on your heart…that its meanings might slowly seep in.

Some questions towards a “thick description” of the Face: how many worlds/memories/lineages/risings-and-fallings does a single Face contain? What happens when we efface someone? When we humiliate them, literally, blanch their face (halbanat panim)? What is the relationship between our surfaces and depths? What is written visibly on our skin and what remains secreted away, hidden for now, perhaps, but real? In what way might we each manifest a range of genderings? Or how might our face (in a given moment) reveal a vast arc of time: preserving traces of stories we carry, etching laughter and concern, smoothing them out, covering, uncovering, hinting at our past and presaging our future—like the word panim itself, intimating beginnings, middles, ends? What, then, is the riddle of our Face? 

Now let’s double our pleasure, moving from the single Face to the world of dialogue, two faces meeting. What does it mean to be “present” with another? How does digital presence compare with its non-digital analogue (to use that odd retronym)? What is unlocked when we not only use our eyes and ears (and maybe our digital fingers to communicate in the Chat), but when the entire sensorium is marshaled in the act of “being with” another person, another “face”? What happens as we add skin to skin touch and shared olfaction: clasping hands, eating fragrant food together; walking together, dancing cheek to cheek, breathing in unison?

Flash: how many of us long to sing together and harmonize, something that digital meetings and prayer preclude unless we all have expensive software!

The past years have prompted us to wonder: to what extent is radical Presence, this deep “facial recognition” also possible digitally? I have experienced it more than once! Do we come to trust differently online? But also, what alternate worlds might digital encounter open up? That is, how is the digital inter-being different from molecular interaction and beholding? How do we attend differently when eyes are fixed on screen?

As we move into the New Year, not knowing what lies ahead, we find ourselves looking back, taking stock: What has been strange, hard, or revealing as we move from the alienation (and yes, the comfort) of partially effaced Zoom meetings (p’nu’yot—emptied out) to being “in person” (panim el panim) once again? What is disappointing and what is wonderful about praying online? Beyond meeting in our PJ’s and luxuriating in athleisurewear! Or being able to mute our video when we get, oy, a sudden stomachache?

What will we miss if we go back to the “in person”? Hint: friends from afar who join us online. As we’ve re-entered “in person” space, have any of us longed for Zoom? What do we wish to include from the digital experience in our new “face to face”? (When I think of the good engendered by Zoom, I surely think of how it creates an even playing field for many of us who are introverted and those of us who are dis/differently abled, or who can’t find a last-minute baby-sitter.) At bottom: can Zoom be a form of face-to-face meeting? (It does, after all, generally restrict visibility to the Face!)? Online, can there be what the kabbalists called or hozer, returning light—the energy we get from each other—the reciprocal mixing of energies? Or is Zoom simply an adequate placeholder, lowering carbon emissions, and “good enough for now?”

Moving into the future, how will we work with hybrid settings, when some of us are Face to Face, and others of us, pixelated rectangles on a screen? How do we avoid creating a bicameral world of insiders and outsiders? And especially, how do we create the kind of immersive experiences that all powerful encounters, and deepest prayer, have? 

All this leads us to some theological musings…on the Face and the Face to Face.

One of the most striking injunctions in TaNaKh is Exodus 33:20, “No person shall see My [face] and live.” How do we square this divine Red Flag with the invitation to baqshu fanai (Ps. 27:8) “seek My Face”; or with those passages in Scripture which celebrate “face to face” encounters with God or beholding God’s grace-filled visage? While we might point to different tradition strands and viewpoints regarding the reality of divine embodiment or visibility, yea or nay, I am drawn to Rabbi Arthur Green’s midrashic reading of our verse. The divine face (or presence) is so complex that no one can compass its totality (“see Me and live”). As though to say, that the divine Face is composed of all of our faces, even as it stretches beyond, to contain all surfaces and depths, bringing together what is, was and will be into one Gestalt, one Face. Ve-el mi tedamyuni (Isa. 40:25 ): Who among us can behold that infinite, mysterious Face?

Perhaps all we can cop is a glimpse, a tiny facet… human faces that move us to the depths, but point beyond, beyond.

Our faces. The very notion that God contains all of our faces is found in sundry kabbalistic and hasidic teachings, perhaps most poignantly, in Nachman of Breslov’s Tale, “The Portrait.” In it, a king sends a beloved counselor on a mission to a far-off land, a country that is thoroughly mixed, a world of both good and evil. (It’s not unlike our world.) Before sending the counselor on his mission, the king tells him that he (the king) has a vast gallery containing the portraits of all the kings of all lands. Yet the gallery is missing the portrait of one king, who lives in that far-off land. The counselor’s job is to find that missing portrait and bring it back to the original king. Although this brief story is too layered to detail here, the message of the story is that when the counselor, after many years of searching, gets an audience with the king of that far-off land, what the counselor sees is a mirror-like image of… his own face! Which is to say, the mysterious king’s “missing face” is none other than that of counselor. To move to the theological “lesson” or nimshal: In God’s infinite gallery of divine faces, what is missing is “you”: the “face” that you have fashioned throughout your life. The counselor paints a self-portrait and returns his own true face—a cumulative image of how he has lived—back to the divine Source. And so too, with every person. We are each the king’s counselor, which is to say, a soul, that, once sent into this world, becomes an embodied pan [facet] or panim of the divine totality—a panim be-fanim, a infinitesmal face within the Infinite divine Face. And no one else but you, can be that missing face! We might ask: what is the face we are crafting with the days of our life? And how might we, in our actions, help each other see, embody and honor our “true” face?

With this theology in mind, we can return to the inter-personal realm. Hasidic masters like the Baal Shem Tov, Nachman, and Uri of Strelisk all teach that friends and teachers (of all ages and stations), even our enemies, can serve as mirrors whereby we discover ourselves. We sometimes see ourselves reflected in the face of the Other: in our warts and in our glory. And in the process, we come to realize that somehow we are all “faces” of the divine. Including ourselves. Sometimes we even learn to love our sur-faces, no small thing.

What is the moral stance that might emerge from the realization that we are all “faces of the divine”? How does it affect our behavior towards the Other? Our systems of social support and laws? And what are the challenges of holding this often-uncomfortable viewpoint?

Equally crucial, Nachman and Martin Buber understand the “face to face” encounter as creating a kind of sacred interface. The verse from Deuteronomy “Panim be-fanim dibber YHWH imakhem, Face to face God will speak to you” is read to mean, in the space between the two of you God will unfold.

Allow your imagination to open and to reflect. What are some moments where you encountered the divine in another, (a child, an old friend, in a lover’s kiss, someone on their deathbed)? How did we feel at those moments? What was important or life-changing? And moving to the other side of the reciprocal equation, think of how others have affirmed us when we felt unloveable—reflecting back to us through touch or glance or in words, that we too are lovable, we too are “faces of the divine.”

Can such encounters happen when only one party is present in physical space? Can these moments of dialogical connection occur, say, while gazing on a photograph? Might we feel addressed by the one who is no longer on this earth place? In a vision, a dream, a heightened experience? When cooking an old family recipe?

As we (hopefully) oscillate into non-digital space once again, we might reflect on those times where the divine has opened out in the shared space, in the Between. Is that Between, a full space, where the word “we” becomes real? Or might it be an empty space, of presence and possibility both. Of a deeper mystery At any event, these texts tell us: in the Between, panim be-fanim, the divine unfolds.

Before leaving the Face, let me ask an obvious question: I am wondering what is unique about the face—for it is there that our forward-facing eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and our most expressive muscles-and-skin cluster, and where we are most visible/accessible to the world. But I also wonder whether and when the face might be a metonym for the whole person? Or the divine totality? That is, how crucial is the Face, say, as opposed to the backside, the belly, or the legs? What realms of encounter/loving are missing when we speak of the Face to Face?

And finally: In these days of increasingly entering into planetary citizenship, we might ask: can we find depths of connection (the “face to face”) with other beings, with the more than human, both with beings having faces that recall ours, e.g., with mammals, such as dogs, cats, squirrels, orca whales, or with other beings that are part of the ecological interface—octopuses and krill, swamps, trees or fungi, say? Beings with radically different sensory and emotional worlds (so-called umwelten)? If we hold, with the 14th century kabbalist, Yosef ben Shalom Ashkenazi, that the world and its creatures collectively are tzelem elohim, the divine image, how far can we stretch to such meetings—panim be-fanim, face(t)s within the infinite divine face? I have experienced such “face-to-face” encounters with cats and dogs, and like Buber, with trees, but never, I must confess, with a mosquito. Off, please!

In closing, let me cite the French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, who spoke eloquently about the Ethics of the Face. He noted that dialogue was first and foremost a turning to face the Other, even before it was about spoken words. From gazing upon the nakedness of the Face of another (not hidden, not masked), Levinas learned the essence of responsibility. He wrote: “The first word of the Face is Thou shalt not kill.” For the naked face is vulnerable and there may arise in each of us an instinctive, barely discerned desire to harm the other’s face, to efface the Other. But, Levinas says, a more powerful counter-message simultaneously arises from the Face, from the act of seeing and being seen: “Since the other one looks at me [and I behold their face] I am responsible for that other.” That, he implies, is k’lal gadol, the essence of Torah.

As we enter Ellul, as we look back and then slowly turn—make an about face—towards the New Year, what stories about living “face to face” are bubbling up for us? What encounters really matter in our lives, as we sift through the wheat and chaff?  What teachings, what practices, what fleeting glimpses may guide us through these turbulent times? At this time of re-inscribing Life, what is aborning in the Interface of our planet and our lives? We turn to the mirror and then we turn outward to the awesome Other, and ask: what is written “in the Face”? 

Shanah tovah umetukah: may this be a year of Renewal, of good health and safety, of real connection, in all worlds. 

Heart to heart, 
Reb Elliot

Shanah tovah u-metukah

May we be inscribed for life 
and be graced with many moments of sweetness 
in the coming year.