I’ve always loved the Priestly Blessing. As a child, I would run through the crowds of Rosh Hashanah and dive under my dad’s Tallis and peek out at the hooded figures on the Bimah. As a Rabbinic student I learnt the reason – so we would not be distracted by facial imperfection of those we gazed at. That reasoning made sense to me. Back in those ‘usual’ times. Before all this.
Nowadays, of course, we daven on Zoom, and the only thing to see is … the imperfection of faces. Actually, it’s not all bad. “I love it like this,” one regular shared, “I love seeing people’s faces when we daven together.”
The French philosopher-Talmudist, Emmanuel Levinas (d. 1995) devoted his career to the significance of encountering the face of others. He would have loved Zoom. For Levinas, the face of the other is the beginning of all ethics. Seeing another face, wrote Levinas, makes us doubt our own supremacy over the world. We see, in other faces, fragility and mortality and we are moved.
On Zoom, I see the face of a member who wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral of their father who died from COVID. He’s been coming every day to say Kaddish. There’s another member who is at home alone, for whom we’ve provided a tablet and WiFi connection. She’s here for a sense of community. Was that a yawn I saw on the third screen in from the right, fourth row down? On Zoom we are all imperfect together, sharing and staring at the imperfection of perfect human creation.
The Chassidic master, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (d. 1827), prefigured Levinas in a teaching on revelation (Zera Kodesh, Shavuot p.40). He begins with a tradition of his teacher, Menachem Mendel of Rimanov – that the sound of revelation on Sinai was the sound of the first letter of the first of the Ten Commandments. That’s so good it’s funny – the first letter of the Ten Commandments is an Aleph, a silent letter. Horowitz goes on to suggest that Moses, therefore, experienced revelation not as a sound at all, but a vision; the vision of God’s face. After all, God does speak to Moses, ‘face to face.’ And the Divine face is that Aleph, with the constituent strokes of the Hebrew letter making up a nose and two eyes. Indeed, all be-faced humanity, carries the imprimatur of God on our face. This is the meaning of our creation in the image of the Divine. We carry godliness in our face, in our beauty, in our imperfection, and most of all in the beauty of our imperfection.
Sometimes, when I’m davening on Zoom, I gaze out at these faces, gazing at me; each of us in our little Zoom boxes. And it does feel I’m gazing at the image of God. It’s bloody awful, this lockdown existence. But it’s not all bad.
Dedicated to the New London Synagogue Zoom Shacharit Minyanaires