“To See Your Face is like Seeing the Face of God” (July 2021 KOL Article)
Society around us seems to be reopening. Pre-pandemic activities are resuming. People feel like they are returning to a lifestyle that has been dormant. For some, there’s even a sense of being in a time-warp, suspended for these past fifteen months but now picking back up as if time had looped or inverted or reconnected in a different way.
There’s actually a principle of Torah interpretation that might match this. The rabbis teach ein mukdam u’m’uchar baTorah, literally, “there is no earlier or later in the Torah” (Mekhilta 7, Sifrei Bamidbar 64, and others). This principle allows us to ask questions of, and solve, apparent chronological inconsistencies in the text because, in our sacred Scriptures, time is a little more fluid than we might presume and operates a little more differently than we might imagine.
Not to get too hung up on the details, but this different sense of Torah time may be why a particular verse from a portion from many months ago has gained particular resonance for me these days. In Genesis, chapter 33, Jacob reunites with his brother, Esau, after twenty years of being separated. When they meet, Jacob proclaims, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). Our sages differ over Jacob’s precise meaning of the phrase. But I think it’s pretty clear that coming face to face with his brother after a prolonged absence is a profoundly spiritual moment for Jacob.
This is also true for us. We may have seen each other’s faces over the past fifteen months, but most of the time they have either been half-masked or pixilated in small Zoom boxes on screens. We have missed the moments of true face-to-face encounter that the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas found to be the foundation of interpersonal relationships and true meaning. When we see each other’s faces directly, we can best recognize in each other the reflection of the Divine, the tzelem Elohim, that we know is embedded there. That brings sanctity to any face-to-face meeting.
That feeling of sanctity has been my experience these past few weeks as we have, slowly but surely, resumed our in-person activities at TBS. Whether that has been at the outdoor Confirmation service, the picnic for madrichim, BeaSTY’s board installation ceremony, Minyan Makers on Shabbat morning, or the ever-increasing number of people in the Sanctuary on Friday nights, there has been a palpable surge of energy when people see each other face-to-face. There’s a joy, a release, a holy moment, when that encounter occurs.
Time may invert or revert or flow differently these days. But the opportunities it now presents to be together, face-to-face, are chances to experience another mode of sanctity once again. Over these next few weeks, I hope you will join your TBS family in-person to celebrate Shabbat together. Truly, seeing each other face-to-face on Shabbat is another way to be in God’s presence together.
Rabbi David S. Widzer