This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso, contains what is possibly the most well-known extant blessing in Biblical tradition: the Birkat Cohenim or “Priestly Blessing:”
May ADONAI bless and protect you. May ADONAI shine (God’s) face upon you show favor to you. May ADONAI turn (God’s) face to you and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:23-26)
One of the most notable aspects of this blessing is its metaphorical use of “God’s face.” The final two blessings utilize this image in two different ways: in the second blessing, the “light” of God’s countenance bestows acceptance or grace (in Hebrew, chen); in the third and final blessing, the “turning” of God’s face expresses Shalom – peace, wholeness, fulfillment.
The metaphor of God’s face is used throughout the Bible, often to convey the powerful and immediate experience of the Divine Presence. In the closing verses of the Torah, for instance, Moses’ unique relationship with God underscored when we read that “God singled him out face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). On the other hand, the concept of hester panim (the “hiding of God’s face”) is often invoked to convey divine anger and punishment (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 31:18).
As poetic as these images may be, I personally struggle with their overly supernatural/anthropomorphic usages. I’m much more drawn to poignantly humanistic way “God’s face” is invoked during the reconciliation of the estranged twin brothers Jacob and Esau.
Upon their reunion, Jacob says to his older brother:
Please, if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God… (Genesis 33:10)
This use of the metaphor suggests that Godliness is particularly manifest in the act of conflict resolution – when former enemies find the wherewithal to “turn their faces” to one another. In this regard, we might well view the Birkat Cohenim not merely as a blessing of well-being but as a spiritual imperative to all who receive it.
When does God’s face shine upon us or turn to greet us? When we turn our faces to one another in acceptance and peace.
That poignantly humanistic vision gets a wonderfully tough-minded treatment in Catherine Madsen’s book “The Bones Reassemble.” Do you know it? There’s one passage I often come back to:
“For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God’s grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God’s indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh (‘I will be what I will be’), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocally present is the human other in need.”
Never read Madsen’s book, but I like her style!