Face to Face on Purim

“Face to Face on Purim”
Rabbi Rick Brody

The apparent silence of the Divine, such a prevalent undercurrent
in the Purim story of Megillat Esther, is written into our very faces. Our hiding behind masks at this holiday alerts us to the holiness beneath the surface.

There is a very beautiful Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827), the Ropshitzer Rebbe—in his collection the Zera Kodesh (Holy Seed), vol. II, p. 40a—that I find very compelling as we prepare for the holiday of Purim. Reb Naftali shares two insights that I find relevant. (You can click here for the entire text.)

  1. AlephThe letter Aleph consists visually of a letter vav (the main line that runs diagonally from the top left to the bottom right) and two letter yuds (the small extensions that branch off to the upper right and lower left).

    YudVavYud
    In gematria, the ancient Jewish system of assigning number values to each letter (Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, etc.), the vav (= 6) and the two yuds (10 x 2 = 20) total 26, which is the same value we achieve when we add up the 4 letters of the traditional name of the Holy One,
    Yud Heh – Vav – Heh (10 + 5 + 6 + 5).

    The “hidden” message that emerges from this connection is that the letter Aleph is not even just an abbreviation for God’s name, but is identical in value to expressing God’s name. (But, of course, the Aleph is silent! More on that below.)

  2. The letter Aleph offers another stunning image when we identify its various parts and use a little more creativity. The part that looks like a vav can be compared to a nose, and the two yuds can be compared to two eyes. It’s somewhat of a cubist rendering, but if you tilt your own head to the left and use a little imagination, you can see the contours of a face—two eyes and a nose! In other words, not only is God’s name expressed in the letter Aleph, but it also appears imprinted onto every human face


The amazing thing about both
the Aleph and the human face
(when it’s not depicted with a mouth, as is the case in the description above) is that neither makes any sound. Each one is silent. But a face still has so much power—to gaze, to emanate humanity and divinity, to be in relationship with another, to indicate the presence of soul. How much more significant is that power when we see it as the letter Aleph, the silent letter that mystically expresses God’s name and therefore the Divine essence.

See if you can spot the face in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

See if you can spot the Aleph in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

For me, this teaching is an inspiration and a challenge to see God’s presence through active engagement with a face, be it our own or that of another. That engagement can be “pre-verbal,” freed from the complications of language and all the noise we create with our mouths. At our core, we are Aleph, a pristine essence that surely needs sounds added to it in order to participate fully in this chatty world, but that when standing alone—silently—might bring us closer to God. In recent days, I have looked into the mirror to behold the Aleph on my face, God’s imprint of Self that reminds me of being part of something greater than my own individual life. And then I try to see that same holy manifestation in every other human being I encounter.

On Purim, we cover up our faces and we make a lot of noise. We act as though we are fleeing from the holiness of our silent faces, afraid to rest content with the divinity that surrounds us. Like Esther, we hide. So too, in the Book of Esther, God is hidden, never being named or appearing as a character. Indeed, the Rabbis point out (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 139b) that in the Torah, God says, Anochi hasteir astir panai—“I will surely conceal my face” (Deut. 31:18)—and suggest that this verse is an allusion to God’s absence from the Book of Esther (note the word play with hasteir astir).

But Purim is all about the world being upside down, about things turning out in precisely the opposite way from which they were planned. Through the irony of God’s silence and absence, the Book challenges us to apprehend God’s presence in a complicated world. In reading a story that is so focused on outer beauty, we remember to look deeper into the hidden Godliness that is imprinted on all of our faces.

Perhaps the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas--maybe in sacred paradox--the mouth is closed!

Perhaps, in these two paintings by Fedro, the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas–maybe in sacred paradox–the mouth is closed!  (“High Time“)

When we pretend on Purim to be running from ourselves and from God, we are actually challenging ourselves to run towards God. We can think of it as running in a circle—eventually we catch up to our starting point! By devoting so much joyful energy one day of the year to run and hide, we empower ourselves to move that much closer all the other days of the year towards the holiness of our silent faces. We get closer to the holiness of the Aleph that is God’s name, silently present—just as God’s name is never uttered in the recitation of the Megillah but is still so palpably close; if only we truly look at one another.

This artist, Jerry Schwehm, brilliantly reveals the Aleph most recognizably among the images here–by relying on the face-to-face encounter of two individuals to give the sacred letter its discernible shape. (“The Kiss”)

Chag Purim Sameach—Have a Joyous Purim!

AND DRINK UP!

————
Thanks to Rabbi Or N. Rose, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Rabbi Adam Stein–for text, graphics, and inspiration–and to the cubist artists whose work is featured here, courtesy of Google’s image search and the linked websites.
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3 responses to “Face to Face on Purim

  1. Sheila Stiebel Rubin

    Fascinating and beautiful. Still trying to find the Alephs. Being Jewish obviously does not give me an advantage. Have you studied the Gematra and the other issues the rabbi spoke about? I’m always curious how non-Jews get involved with these kind of far out ideas. Just beware. There are a lot go kooks out there that claim to be learned rabbis. Some of them make claims that just aren’t true. You should ask where they received their ordination.I don’t want to be negative, but some of these people are just manipulators. I would be happy to refer you to scholars that can be trusted. Nevertheless, art is art and can be appreciated by anyone( without going too deeply into the religious origins.)

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Sheila. Yes, I’ve studied the Gematria. It’s fun. I believe in discovering meaning, not only relying on what we know was handed to us intentionally. I’m not claiming that the art I found was deliberately made to show the aleph—rather, that a cubist approach quite naturally lends itself to such a portrayal. And rest assured that I have no interest in citing or engaging fraudulent rabbis and know where to look for legitimate ones who are worth my time. Thanks again.

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