Facing God, Facing One Another

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.