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.

Communicating with God

A few hours from now it will be erev Purim. It’s my day to stay late and I find myself juxtaposing two experiences I had today: this morning’s Purim Assembly at our lower school, and my afternoon 5th grade Judaics classes.
This morning the entire lower school gathered in the gym for a Purim Assembly (davka NOT a Megillah reading). One of the great blessings of The Davis Academy is that we often have the opportunity to welcome (i.e. utilize) rabbis from the community. Several of my rabbinic colleagues had agreed to dress up and participate in a Purim skit. A good time was had by all and there are pictures!
Purim is a holiday of contradictions. I find it to be intermittently profound and mundane, deadly serious and uncontrollably silly. The Purim story invites us inter alia to consider if/how/where/why God is present even as God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. I don’t want to attempt to answer that question here…
This afternoon I introduced what promises to be a rich and intense unit of study with my 5th grade students. Initially I thought the unit would center on prayer fluency and the basic concepts of Jewish prayer. As I contemplated a set induction I knew that I wanted to give the students an assignment that was vague, open to interpretation, and also personal. The assignment I came up with was: “Communicate with God.” I tried to offer as little instruction as possible. Being a beautiful day I thought it would be good to go outside.
After giving the students time to think, write, explore, or do what they would with the assignment we gathered as a class to discuss. Let me say only that it took very little prompting for students to share and listen to one another with the utmost respect. For some the assignment was a breeze, for others it was paralyzingly difficult. A number of comments were made. Here’s a selection:

“This was easy because communicating with God isn’t something I need to be taught. I already have everything I need to know inside of me.”

“If God created all of us, then when we communicate with one another, we are, in a sense, communicating with God.”

“I am always communicating with God, God is everywhere. In all that I do I communicate with God.”

“I drew a picture of Moses kneeling upon a rock and praying, God is depicted as a hand reaching down from a cloud.”

“I communicate with God by finding a quiet place to sit and relax. I like to look around and see what comes into my mind.”

“I told God about my day, about my plans for Purim and Spring Break. It doesn’t have to be a big special thing to talk to God.”

As I reflect on these, and the many other responses that were shared during these conversations, I realize now that the juxtaposition of this “assignment” and the rapidly approaching holiday of Purim needn’t be random at all, but actually quite purposeful. Purim is a holiday that invites us to speculate about God’s role in human affairs or imagine a world without God. By opening a dialogue about God with my students I found myself presented with a variety of options for negotiating these often abstract and/or dogmatically rigid questions.

Chag Purim Sameach.