Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a holocaust theologian, knew what it meant to call out to God but get no response. In a world where God does not always respond, responsibility falls on us. Each person is responsible for responding to the other. To be ethical, then, is to be response-able.
Thus, our ethical and spiritual challenge is to meet one another “face to face.” When a needy face appears, we should respond. No matter how distant or different the face seems. God is present wherever a needy face calls out. And also wherever a person responds.
Levinas borrows the words “face to face” from Parshat Vayishlach. Here Jacob is about to come face to face with the twin brother he fears. Before the meeting, Jacob wrestles in the night with a mysterious stranger. Jacob is successful, and the stranger blesses him with a new name. “Wow,” Jacob says, “I have seen the face of God.” Then, when he sees his brother, he says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
What does Jacob mean? Many things, Levinas might say. For example:
“Picturing your face called me into God’s presence.”
“I was afraid to see you face to face, but God’s presence motivated me.”
“Now that I am open to you, I see God’s presence reflected in your face.”
For more reflections on Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), click here.