By Erica Brown
In one of the most tender moments in a book full of tender moments, Boaz offered Ruth the simple gift of permission to stay and glean in his fields. She responded with dramatic wonderment at his generosity. Ruth bowed low, with her face to the ground, and asked, without looking at him, “Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).
Boaz told Ruth that he knew exactly who she was. Ruth’s self-sacrifice preceded her: the kindnesses she did for her late husband and her mother-in-law, what she gave up to make Israel her new home, to make the Israelites her people. Whatever meager handout Boaz had given Ruth could never compare. With these few words, Boaz made an invisible woman visible, lifting her face full of life’s harshest scars from the ground and meeting her eye to eye.
I’ve been thinking a lot about faces lately and how to carry Boaz’s simple gesture into our dystopian COVID-19 landscape this Shavuot. Today, the human face, masked outdoors but overly exposed on screens, has become the stand-in for the rest of us. Where others are staring at bookshelves and light fixtures, I’m all about the face of the other disembodied on my screen, like some middle-of-the-night séance that hasn’t ended for weeks.
All of these online meetings and classes have helped me realize the sheer delight I have in seeing the faces of others. In certain ways, I feel closer to my students precisely because their faces are the object of my total focus. They’ve become welcome expressive panes breaking the isolation and reinforcing the dialogical nature of all human interactions. There is much that I will not miss about online education, but this kind of face-to-face closeness I will miss a great deal. I can never experience it in the classroom. You cannot take in so many faces with such proximity at one time.
In Hebrew, the word for face, panim, is plural and not singular, capturing the way that the face changes continually in response and reaction to the world around it. The biblical expression “panim el panim,” face-to-face, is used in the Hebrew Bible multiple times to suggest the highest level of intimacy in communication. After Jacob wrestled with an angel, he understood something extraordinary and sacred had taken place in his sleep. When he awoke, he named the very spot Peniel – God’s face – saying: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30).
Panim el panim is mentioned three times to describe the way God interacted with Moses as a statement of his prophetic uniqueness (Exodus 33:11, Numbers 12:8, Deuteronomy 34:11). In Exodus, the expression is qualified with intimacy. They spoke, “just as one speaks to his friend,” reflecting Heschel’s observation in The Prophets that, “A prophet’s true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought.”
This is in sharp contrast to Gideon’s encounter with God, in the Book of Judges; Gideon believed that because he encountered the intensity of God’s face, he would die and had to be reassured: “But the Lord said to him, ‘All is well; have no fear, you shall not die’” (6:24). Gideon’s reaction of fear reminds us of the way we often cower in the face of intensity. In some of our closest relationships we fail to hold eye contact long enough to reach deep into another’s soul. To maintain the comfortable remoteness that invites no obligation, that summons no empathy, we remain at a visual distance. It is God who steps into the moment to remind Gideon that he was in no danger. There is often greater danger in not looking at someone than in looking hard.
This message of the face’s danger and the danger of invisibility was reinforced by Lucy Grealy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, about her struggle with Ewing’s sarcoma. The childhood cancer ravaged Grealy’s face. She began the first of many reconstructive surgeries at 16, a hard age to battle beauty and lose. She became her face: “This singularity of meaning – I was my face, I was ugliness – though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life. Everything led to it, everything receded from it – my face as personal vanishing point.” Grealy experienced the exact opposite of what we are dealing with online in quarantine. Today, a face is not our vanishing point but now, in many professional and personal contexts, our only point.
Grealy’s distorted self-image received further treatment in Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s testament to their friendship, where we are treated to more reflections on the face. To Patchett, the physicians who treated Grealy also only saw her face as object: “They didn’t account for Lucy, only for her face … But how can you operate on the face without understanding what the face means to the girl? How can the meaning of kissing, swallowing, speaking, be completely ignored in favor of mechanics?” Eight years after the book was published, Grealy died of a heroin overdose.
Patchett’s describes the human cruelty of looking judgmentally at a face: “The gawk was full of brazen curiosity, pity, and fear, every unattractive human emotion rolled into one unflattering facial expression.” To confess, I’ve done my share of gawking these past few months. At my own face. Since when did the screen become a mirror, highlighting each new wrinkle and blemish? It’s unfair and distracting. The backlighting catches the swipe of fatigue under my eyes. No wonder I feel so tired at the end of each day, a lethargy built of hundreds of digitalized moments of gawking.
The doctors who were afraid to look at Grealy’s face may have been avoiding the threatening mortal reality she represented – a living memento mori. Had they let their eyes stay on her face long enough, they may have raised Grealy out of the scab of invisibility, much the way Boaz did for Ruth. With a glance and a word, Boaz carried Ruth from defeat and anguish into worthiness.
This Shavuot, I will celebrate not only the Torah but the face that studies Torah, the face that bestows kindness, the face that constantly alters. For all that I have resented as these COVID weeks turn into months, for all my anger at the death, destruction and waste, I am profoundly grateful for every face. With vulnerability, in a time of loss and grief, our eyes meet, and there is relief for a time.
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.