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Va’ethanan 5778

July 26, 2018

The Paradox of Faces
A D’var Torah for Va’ethanan
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

This parashah is a second telling of the wilderness revelation:  a remix of Sinai, if you will.  Our parashah is a part of the long speech Moses makes to his people as they are about to enter the land of Canaan.  It is also the center of a crucial Jewish paradox.

Moses describes the revelation at Sinai by saying: “The Eternal spoke to you out of the fire, you heard the voice of words (kol devarim) but you saw no image, nothing but a voice.”

This description of revelation is so complex as to resemble a Zen koan.  First of all, in spite of the way I just translated it, it’s in the present tense: ‘You hear the voice of words, but you see no image, nothing but a voice.”  It’s a description of God focused on sound, voice, story, and yet we see the voice.

U’temunah einkhem ro’im zulati kol.  “No image, nothing but a voice” A voice is not an image, and yet it is, in that a voice invites us to visualize a speaker, the way if you heard someone call you, you would turn your head to see who it was.  There’s a paradox.  God has no image, but invites visualization.  To me, this means that God is visible in a way that requires the participation of the imagination.  This perhaps might be why we find the image of God in Jewish mysticism spanning a range from king to rabbi to apple tree to rainbow to warrior queen to scribe to ocean.  God is visible not as a chair is visible but as a story, an image we conjure through our relationships with God—maybe even through our experiences with one another.

In chapter 5 verse 4, Moses says to the people: “face to face the Eternal spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”  Face to face?  But I thought we saw no image.   Pesikta Rabbati, a rabbinic commentary, says that “face to face” means “person to person” as in without intermediary.  We’re not talking about real faces here.  But another midrash, Pesikta deRav Kahana, says something quite radical and shocking:

  1. Levi said, At Sinai the Holy One appeared to the people as if a statue with faces on every side. A thousand people might be looking at the statue, but it would appear to be looking at each one of them. So, too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person could say, “The Torah is addressing me.” Scripture does not say, ani hashem eloheikhem “I am the Lord your God”; [in the plural] but ani hashem elohekha “I am the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:2) [in the singular].

(Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25)

This ancient commentary says that it’s not that God has no face, but that each of us has a face of God in us that we can turn to, and no one face can be fixed as the face, because the face changes as the relationship changes.  God’s face isn’t a thing outside us but an image called forth from within us.

That’s why this parashah also contains the Shema, which says: Listen, God-wrestlers, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone, or YHWH is our God, YHWH is one.  Shema yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai ehad.  The God-name yud-heh-vav-heh means being or becoming.  Being is our God, Being is one. Or even, Becoming is our God.  We have to discover what we will see.  Becoming is a name for God that invites us not into a fixed image of what is true and right but into imagination.

The Zohar, a foundational work of Jewish mysticism, has an interesting definition of oneness.  It teaches that each time we say the Shema, we bring together the faces of God through the combination of the divine names.  The Shema is a declaration of oneness that is also a resolution of duality.   Listen to the Zohar’s translation:  Hear O Israel, the Holy One and the Shekhinah are unified, divinity is at one.   In this reading, the Shema isn’t a declaration of a static reality, it’s a theurgic action, a ritual in which we create divine oneness by bringing together God’s faces into a whole.  We are actually helping to create oneness by imagining oneness as we say the Shema.  This oneness implies not aloneness but togetherness, joining, union— a union we can be part of.  A union that includes everyone.  The Hasidic thinker Shneur Zalman of Liadi says that the Shema describes a hidden reality in which there is nothing but God, a reality where all being is one.

So of course we read this parashah at the season of Tu b’Av.  The fifteenth of Av, this Thursday night, which falls a week after Tisha b’Av, is a folk Israelite festival.  It’s mentioned as a grape harvest dancing holiday in the Bible, and in the Talmud it’s mentioned as a holiday in which unmarried women put on white clothes and go out to dance in the fields, and men and the whole community go out to watch this dance, so the women may attract the attention of a potential relationship partner.

Two things about the white clothes: one, they have to be dunked in a mikveh, which means they are holy.  Two: the clothes have to be borrowed from someone else.  This means the holy dancers cannot be easily recognized in terms of tribe or social status.  You have to know who they are, not by what they are wearing or where they live, but by discovering them in motion.  This reminds us that we cannot find God in people when we think we know them by their traits or demographics.  We have to know them through encounter.

Tu b’Av is a revelation dance, in which God is peeking in and out of the dancers and the observers.  Tu b’Av reminds us of the dance, the play, of God with the beloved world.  Shoshana and I named our daughter Raya Leela for this truth: Raya means beloved in Hebrew, and Leela, in Sanskrit, means “divine play” as in the hide-and-seek game of God and the universe.

Tu b’Av comes within a week of Tisha b’Av to remind us that this is a world of separation, and, ultimately, this is also a world of love and unity.  Both things are true, but the second truth is the one we have to live by.  Tu b’Av asks us to discover ourselves and others as the beloved, to discover the face of God that looks at us and our fellow creatures with love.  Then, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, whoever we are meeting, we are at one.

We are under the huppah at this very moment.  If you could look inside right now, you might see a face with you under the huppah, an elusive face, a face-to-face face, a face that is nothing but a voice.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education of the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the author of several books including The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.