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Panim El Panim - Face To Face

By Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe ~ Rosh Hashanah Day 5774 / 2013
One of my favorite Jewish memories as a child and to this day is observing the High Holy Days. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, we would partake in a delicious festive meal that included the round challah with raisins, apples dipped in honey, homemade chopped liver, chicken soup, and my grandmother’s honey baked chicken. Then my family and I would rush over to Temple Beth Am – a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles where my mother’s family had been members for many years. My parents were married there fifty-five years ago and Michael and I were married there twenty-five years as well. During the High Holy Day services, we knew exactly where we were sitting in the sanctuary because we sit in the same reserved seats every year up in the balcony. Therefore, the people who were sitting in the row in front of us as well as those who sat behind us were the same people every single year.
My family and I would hug and kiss these people as we say Gut Yontov or L’shana Tova! However, the more important ritual was to catch up with all the latest news and maybe a little gossip. We would say: Oh my have you grown up! How are you feeling since you had surgery? Oh I love your dress! How are your children? What are you studying in school? How is your new job? Where is your brother? Oh I love your new hairstyle! These on-going conversations would continue throughout the entire day. This ritual of connection, of reaching out to others and being a part of a sacred community is a memory that is deeply engraved in my heart.
As you know, scientifically, we are social creatures—we live, interact and thrive by being surrounded by others. We are not born to live in isolation—we were meant to live by being in the presence of others. Everyday, we prove that we indeed are social creatures by doing simple actions we take for granted, such as small talk, a quick “hello,” and the constant conversations we engage with our friends, coworkers, family and strangers alike. Our status of being known as the one that cannot live without the other is truly emphasized in this advanced age of technology and social networking. Never have we had this moment, when the conversations we endure become multiplied in speed and efficiency. But of course, even with the abundance of technologies and creative ways to talk to each other, I believe that the best way to connect, to understand, and to enjoy being with others is simply through the same way that our people did in ancient times—face to face. This interaction is called Panim el Panim- literally meaning face to face. The irony is that people can be connected in a split second anywhere in this world through technology, but it is not as equivalent as being in the same room and experiencing that moment with others.
In fact, this notion of Panim el Panim is deeply ingrained in our Jewish tradition. Judaism greatly values the time and space that we set aside to being with others. We celebrate the days of our children’s birth to the observance of the days of mourning of our loved ones. All of these lifecycle and holiday events require a minyan—meaning at least ten people that highlight the importance of our tradition being surrounded by a community. Panim el Panim encounters are potential stepping stones that increases meaning and purpose in our daily lives, especially in the Jewish community—these holy connections can elevate and strengthen our relationship within ourselves, with others and with God.
The Hebrew word for "face" is panim, meaning of inner spirit or essence. This inner essence is to recognize our true selves as to who we are, as to how we are, and as to where we are in this moment. But how often do we recognize our own face and share our inner essence with others? What we see in ourselves and in the people around us tend to be our personality, which actually harbors a potential negative connotation. "Personality" comes from the Greek word, "persona", which means mask. Persona is the outer mask that blocks or hides the inner sense or more so ever the inner spirit. The greater challenge for us is dealing with our own persona—the masks we wear daily to hide our faults, resentment, fear, or any other negative emotion. When we choose to display our persona instead of panim, we back away from our true face thus creating a distance within ourselves and in return, with others.
In the Zohar, the Kabbalalistic tradition explains that at the beginning of Elul—approximately one month before the High Holy Days, we are actually achor el achor, meaning “back to back,” with the goal that by the end of the High Holy Day season—we become panim el panim, “face to face” once again. It is at this time of the year—many of our backs are turned away and the distance between ourselves, with others and with God is further apart than we want to admit.
Often, when we feel angry, hurt, abandoned or whatever the root of our pain may be, we turn our backs. If our backs are turned then why even make that first move only to turn around and see the back of the other? It is during the healing process of Teshuvah that grants us the willingness and motivation to turn around and endure the challenges ahead.
Would this imply that God has His back turned to us as well? The Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman offers an insight—“that God is out in the field,” meaning God is always there for us in the “field” of our everyday lives. All we need to realize is that God has never turned His back on us. Only when we turn around do we realize the truth of our own inner essence, of others, and of God.“ (Adapted from - The Secret Elul by Sara Esther Crispe)
You see, when we are looking into a face of another – it is like a mirror—not only do we see the faces of ourselves, but also of others and perhaps more so of God. The word panim is plural, not singular. We see more than one face in which Rabbi David Wolpe expands into: "The human face is capable of infinite shades of meaning- joy, sorrow, doubt, laughter, love. And even more so, the truest image of God in this world shines where? …within each of our faces." (Relational Judaism, Dr. Ron Wolfson)
Throughout my sixteen years here at TAE, there have been many beautiful Panim el Panim experiences and it is truly a privilege to witness them. One of the most meaningful and holy events that often takes place here in the synagogue is when we take the Torah out of the Ark. As the Ark doors open, we all rise facing the Ark—with silent anticipation as if the King or Queen has entered the room. We lift up our eyes as the Torah wears her elegant silver crown and jewels. At that moment, we take note of the one who is carrying the Torah- a young man or woman who had become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah that day. Then we witness the Torah being passed down from one generation to the next. As we hand the Torah to each of these people- grandparents, parents and then to the child- it becomes a Panim el Panim experience because that is exactly the purpose of the Torah. It is the ever-living Torah—the Tree of Life—the legacy that has kept our people strong and united as one. It is something that we hold so close to our hearts—that makes us look within ourselves—with divine love and honor as we attempt to fulfill the promise of the Covenant; the promise that when we received the Torah, we will pass it down to our children, grandchildren and to their children.
Now let’s take a moment as we discuss the significance of Torah:
• Have you ever wished you could learn more about the Torah in a smaller, more personal setting rather than during weekly services or classes?
• Do you have any curious questions about the Torah in general, or specific portions or topics that interest you, but was afraid to ask?
• Do you have a child with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah coming up in a year or so, and would like to learn more about their Torah portion and become more involved?
• Would you like to re-connect with the Torah portion from YOUR Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and share it with your family? Or see if you can still chant it after all these years later in the comfort of your own home?
My hope is that your answer is YES! One may assume that the Torah always stays here in the Ark, but the Torah can go anywhere. I would like to offer this new program called “Torah To Go-Here at TAE”. The original program started at Beth Or in Philadelphia, Pa. and I believe that we would truly enjoy this experience of being closer to the Torah as well as be granted the chance to connect and create new Panim el Panim experiences with others here at TAE. There will be approximately two days a month where I, Cantor David Shukiar and Rabbi Barry Diamond can bring to the Torah to you. Ideally, one would open up their home one afternoon or evening and invite a group of people from our TAE community, such as family, friends, havurahs, religious school or ECC classmates and for anyone else who would like to participate in this experience. For that activity, we would participate in an engaging Torah study session, nosh a bit and learn more about each other in this smaller, more informal setting.
Rabbi Richard Address says: “that being a part of a religious community is vital and important to all of us. It is not only theology or prayer that binds us; rather it is friendships, love and relationships. He suggested that the most powerful of these should be the determination to find truth and meaning for each of us in our community and in the love of family and friends. In doing so, we become wealthy and so very wise.”
Let us become wealthy and so very wise by simply being in the presence of others here within our own sacred community. There are many opportunities including this new Torah program to embrace the concept of Panim el Panim- to gain friendships, love and connection among each other.
I am very excited about this possibility of offering the “Torah To Go Here At TAE” program and I hope that you will join me as we attempt to explore this potential Panim el Panim journey. We plan to start towards the end of October. If you are interested in working with me, participating or by being a host please let me know by contacting the Temple office or send me an email.
I believe that when we open our eyes and look at others—we can see the light of love and joy. We can see the light of sorrow and fear. We can see the light of comfort and healing. We can see the light of truth and perhaps peace.
“There was once a man who was walking in a forest, lost for many days. He couldn't find the right path- each time he thought he was getting somewhere, he found himself even more lost. This went on for days and days, wandering in the thick woods. Eventually, this man ran into another just like him - someone else who had been wandering lost in the forest. "Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," he said. "I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know this, do not go the way I have been going, for that way is not the way. Now let us walk on together and find the light." (Midrash)
(invite congregants to hold hands) By walking together, hand in hand into the wilderness of our lives, these Panim el Panim-face to face encounters can lighten up our world and remind us of all the possibilities of what life can offer us and to know that we were not meant to live without others.
As we approach this New Year of 5774—May we find the courage, faith and hope to turn our backs and embrace our own panim, the panim of others, and the divine face of God. Once we are able to do that- then we can take the first step of T’shuvah that will allow us to experience and accept forgiveness, gain a sense of renewal and gratitude and more so, become a beacon of light to all humankind.
L’shana tova umetukah- May we all be granted a sweet New Year filled with many blessings, with much love and the ultimate gift of peace. Ken Yehi Ratzon- May it be God’s will. AMEN
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