Seeing the Face of God
Seeing the Face of God
HIGH HOLY DAY SERMON 2018/5779
Rabbi Beth Singer
It is so powerful to see all of us gathered together on this night of the Jewish New Year. During these gatherings, when we all stand for a prayer, we can imagine ourselves standing with our ancestors who all stood together at Sinai to receive God’s commandments.
Imagine that Sinai moment with me!
What exactly did they hear?
Some say that each one heard all 613 commandments! Some say they heard the 10 commandments. But still others say they only heard the first commandment: “ Anochi, I the Eternal, am Your God.”
One teaching, which I am going to focus on tonight, imagines that each person standing at Mt Sinai heard only the letter Aleph. Now, the Aleph is the first letter of the first commandment. So, they heard the Aleph. But the Aleph has no sound! The Aleph is silent.
Can you imagine how mystical that moment must have been?
Rabbi Kushner shares a Hasidic teaching that the Hebrew character Aleph itself is constructed of two other Hebrew letters: a diagonal Vav and 2 Yuds. 2
Rabbi Horowitz of Ropcyce (Rope-sitch) taught: Adonai, God’s name, starts with Aleph. “This,” he says, “hints at the face of a human being!”
What does this mean?
(Well) The two eyes resemble 2 letter Yuds. And the nose is a Vav.
In other words, on every Human face there is a letter Aleph—which stands for God’s name! (The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition, Kushner).
When we gaze into someone’s countenance, their punim, whether the face of someone we love or someone who upsets us, Jewish tradition teaches us how to see the face of God!
How easy it is to see the Divine in the faces of those we love.
Seeing God’s face in someone who makes us feel uncomfortable?
This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from the Torah.
Remember the drama between twins Esau and Jacob? The two brothers had been estranged for years. Then they grew up. Jacob wanted to come home. And to do so, he had no choice but to see his brother. 3
So, what does Jacob say when, after all these years and after all the fear, he finally faces his brother? He’s silent for a minute. Just like that silence at Mount Sinai when we all heard the Aleph. Then.
He looks at his brother and he says, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)
Can you imagine being able to look into the face of an adversary or even just of someone who unsettles us, and to see that special spark in them?.
You don’t even have to believe in God for this idea to become a transformative practice in your life.
But it can be difficult and painful. We can recognize what arises for us – fear, judgment, shame – but work to not allow these forces to rule us.
We all possess an inner critic and it’s good to sometimes challenge that voice from within that tells us to avoid people who are different than us.
I know this from my own experience. The day I started middle school, I recoiled and backed away from a deaf girl who tried to befriend 4
me. In that moment, I did not see the face of God in that girl. All I saw were her differences.
I feel like I, of all people, should have known better…I wish I had challenged my inner critic at that moment… because, as many of you know, I grew up with a sister with a stigma. The stigma of mental illness.
In childhood, my sister Lori was treated like a pariah everywhere we went, including our Temple. She lives with schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and paranoia. When you look into her face, you see the mental illness right away.
You can also see the 2 yuds and the Vav. Yet, growing up, too few people saw the face of God in Lori. Most only saw that she was different.
If you have experienced anything like this yourself or in your family, you know what I mean when I tell you how painful that was…for Lori, for me, for our family.
For any of us, it could be a family member with mental illness, like my sister. Or really any (ANY) perceived difference. Any “otherness.”
could be a family member with an addiction;
with a nonbinary gender identity; an LGBT family member
a learning difference;
a difficult marriage; a divorce; a medical condition; domestic abuse;
Or it could be one of our high school students who is not headed to college.
Or a family member who is socially awkward.
These are just a few examples.
The tendency of our culture is to respond to all these differences with the silence of an aleph.
But the Torah feeds our inner critic with an alternate response to silence. It’s just one word and it’s in that story we read tomorrow, on Rosh Hashana morning, about Abraham and the binding of Isaac.
Whenever called upon, Abraham always responds: “Hineyni,” which means, “Here I am.”
THIS can be our take-away on this New Year, 5779. But it’s not an easy take-away. Looking past difference is so hard. We are easily overcome by embarrassment, shame or fear.
Yet. These spiritual teachings of our tradition invite us to: 6
Look into each face—those we recognize with love and those that make us uncomfortable because they are different.
Look for that yud.yud.vav.
Hineyni. Here I am. I see you, and I see the face of God.
When I have written about my sister’s mental illness, many of you have emailed me or talked to me in private–detailing a mental or emotional illness and its impact on you and your family. Now, some of us are very private and we always want to respect an individual’s privacy. But we want to balance privacy with creating community space here at Temple where it’s not only ok but holy and healing to share something personal.
This summer, I visited with one of my dearest friends on the East Coast. Somehow, in the most casual way he mentioned that his young adult son lives with an anxiety disorder. For a moment, I felt shock that I was just hearing this now. (I’d known this kid forever!)
But then –I stopped.
You know, my younger daughter has struggled with anxiety since high school and I had never shared that with this friend, or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, it’s something I rarely talk about even with all of you. 7
At first, I, myself, did not believe or understand that my daughter who is so accomplished would have this problem. And maybe I felt some shame and that something about my parenting was to blame. Everyone else’s kids seemed fine, so what was wrong with me and what was wrong with my kid?
Better to keep this to myself. So I understand our human tendencies to keep things hush hush.
But is keeping all of this to ourselves working? The suicides of public figures shook many of us to the core this past year. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain ended their lives.
I heard from so many of you after these terrible losses.
It really didn’t matter if they were Jewish, or not. Each one had a private or semi-public struggle with depression. However depressed we thought we knew they were, we had no idea. Almost 50,000 Americans die by suicide each year. Suicide rates for teens keep rising. That’s why naming stigma can be a matter of life and death.
The great writer William Styron “compared the agony of mental 8
illness to that of a heart attack. Pain is pain, whether it is in the mind or the body. So why, he asked, were depressed people treated as pariahs?”
Imagine if, instead, we infuse the silence with the sound of our voice saying: Hineyni! Let’s talk about it. Let’s hear people’s stories of living with the stigma of mental illness, right here IN our Temple.
What if we were to talk openly about our new Mayor’s controversial ideas about moving mentally ill people off the streets to a place where they can get real help?
Imagine… if we partnered with JFCS–Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and others. And made mental illness awareness an annual part of our Teen curriculum.
Imagine…if our kids didn’t only feel that the Clergy are for Bat and Bar mitzvah, but came to us throughout their development to share their struggles?
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, has this wonderful book I think we should all have called This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. In it, he recalls that Sigmund Freud “introduced the single great idea…[that] the invisible is more important than the visible.” (Lew p. 7) 9
I think about everyone carrying a secret…a secret pain of any kind.
WE could make the Invisible visible.
A few months ago, a friend and I were catching up. She told me that her 8th grade son was on a class trip to Israel. Her son is so smart, but he often stands at the edges of peer groups. I told her about 8th grade groups Rabbi Rodich, Ariana and I take each year from Emanu-El to Los Angeles–the famed 8th Grade Disney Trip! I noted that sometimes there is a student who stand on the edges of the social circle, pretending to have a good time, but I see the wish to be part of the crowd.
Then, my friend told me a story I will never forget. She noted that, she, too was shy and awkward as a child. But here’s what’s amazing.
She said: “There was this very popular girl at my school. And for reasons I’ll never understand, she saw me and felt I would be a valuable part of her group. When she pulled me in, other kids treated me differently. All because of that one girl.”
Some of us need to be pulled in. And sometimes we forget that we have that power to pull others in. To be the one who sees God’s face in each 10
These stories, these stigmas, are challenging. If you are a parent who feels that your child isn’t as socially accepted as other kids, that hurts.
If you feel like you can’t let people know about your addiction, that’s isolating.
If you have a hard time with mentally ill people, or are impacted by mental illness in your family, you are not alone!
But I tell you, picking up that practice of looking for the Holy in each person, that’s a starting place on this first day of the New Year.
Remember that midrash about all of us standing at Sinai and hearing the Aleph? Here’s a way to help you remember! I brought a prop! Our talented artist Sandy Cohen-Wynn hung new beautiful banners in the Martin Meyer Sanctuary. Every time you go there, look for this Aleph. Yud. Yud. Vav. Eye. Eye. Nose. Think about the person who distresses you. Look for this Aleph, look for that special spark on their face.
We all stood together at Sinai.
We quieted for just a moment to tune into something silent and 11
invisible. It’s the feeling we feel when we feel excluded. You hear no sound. You feel invisible. It’s the feeling we feel when we exclude. But it’s also the feeling, and the Presence of God when you say, “Hineyni, here I am.”
That’s the sound.
It’s the sound of silence and it’s the sound of the Sacred in each of us.
A New Year is here. We say, “Hineyni. Here I am. I see you and I see the face of God.” Sometimes we feel invisible. But at moments like this, we remember that we are part of something so much greater than ourselves. We turn to one another and we say, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Shana tova, may it be a sweet year.