The Face of God, Other, and Self: A Purim Reflection

“When You hid Your face, I was terrified.”

— Psalm 30:8

“The presence of the face is precisely the very possibility of understanding one another.”

 –Emmanuel Levinas, 1952

            Purim is once again at hand. In addition to the costume pageants, carnivals, school dance, school-wide scavenger hunt, and frozen yogurt cart, Purim also has a serious side. Consider the idea of Hester Panim (literally “Hidden Face”). Hester Panim refers to the fact that there is no explicit reference to God in the Megillah. It raises the theologically challenging idea that there have been times in Jewish history when God has hidden God’s face, or maybe even looked the other way. 

            The Jewish-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has an interesting take on Hester Panim and on the idea of the “face” in general. Levinas believed that seeing the face of another human being was always a transformational experience. Once we’ve looked into the eyes of another person, noticed the creases of their brow, and the slight asymmetry of their features, we immediately find ourselves ethically (and infinitely) obligated to them.  The face, more than anything, conveys both the uniqueness and the universality of what it means to be human.

           Through the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor), Purim reminds us of our ethical obligation to see the many faces that comprise our community. On the other hand, Hester Panim reminds us of what happens when we hide from ourselves and others, when we look the other way, and when we mask our humanity. As we put on our Purim masks let’s take a moment to look in the mirror. As we see ourselves reflected in that image, so too may we see our shared humanity reflected in the faces of those who surround us. When we truly see our face and the face of the Other, we counteract the terrifying notion that God may, at times, be looking the other way.