This Week’s D’Var Torah

27 March 2020


Dear Yale Jewish community,

I am writing to keep our bonds alive as we together confront the reality of pandemic.

In one very narrow sense, life at Yale returned to normal this week. Spring break ended, and classes resumed. But it’s not quite true that “students returned to class” – because, as you know, students have not returned, but remain scattered, connected to one another and their professors through the wonders of group video chat.

So I too have spent the past week on Zoom, in a strange semblance of normal life: talking to students between classes and in the evening, asking them what their lives are like, what is on their minds and hearts. I often ask what is most different about a life lived online, about what can’t cross the digital border – about what we have had to leave behind from the old order of things, and about what we will find when we emerge on the other side of this.

In every conversation that goes on for long enough, and goes deep enough, the answer is always the same: singing together. It is simply impossible to sing together on Zoom, due to the short delay between participants. One-directional concerts work fine, but truly collaborative music is a non-starter. Shalhevet S ‘21, described the loss of 8+ hours of weekly rehearsal (not to mention Shabbat singing) as “devastating.”

The animating power of music in social and spiritual life Yale is hard to overstate: whether it’s the deep, shared love for TUIB, the beauty of Shabbat singing after meals (the first spiritual moment I experienced starting here a year-and-a-half ago was singing with sixty students after Shabbat dinner), or the life-long friendships formed in a capella – the communities formed in the collective creation of sometimes feel like the realest thing on this campus.

And even as the life of the mind has returned to life in virtual seminar rooms and lectures this week, our music remains silent, or if it exists, one-directional. We are learning together in classrooms, but we are not coming to know one another in the more profound and personal ways that are only unlocked through music. Our communal music is lost in the translation of our lives onto Zoom. What are we to make of this?

The Jewish tradition offers its most poignant answer in a visual, not auditory, register. At Sinai Moses beseeched God, “Let me see Your face.” But God refused Moses’s request, “You cannot see My face and live… I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but you will not see My face” (Exodus 33:18-23). The scene is eerily reminiscent of social distancing: a direct encounter would be too dangerous, distance and protective measures that cover the face are necessary for survival.

Moses sought an immersive encounter with God but received something far less – mediated, distant, and partial. The gap between the encounters we are used to and those we carry out over Zoom is perhaps not so different.

The great Maimonides (impelled, to be sure, by his horror at this passage’s liberal use of anthropomorphism) translates this scene into a haunting depiction of what it means to share someone else’s presence. Moses, Maimonides imagines, asked to know God “as one knows a person whose face she has seen, and whose expressions are engraved on her memory” – the way that the faces of our closest friends and families are etched deeply in not only our memories, but our souls. But God was revealed to Moses merely as  “a person is distinguished from other people when one sees his back and knows the posture of his body and his manner of dress” – the way we can, seeing someone from behind, know that it is them by their clothing and their mannerisms, without ever seeing their face.

What is so moving about Maimonides’s description (and this should be a first hint of how far off-base depictions of him as a stodgy rationalist really are) is that in both scenarios – the face-to-face encounter and seeing someone’s back – there is the same quantity of information about the identity of the person in question: we know who we are looking at. But the chasm between staring into someone’s eyes and inferring that it is them because of their coat or hat could not be more vast. Again, this is something like the difference between singing with someone and having a conversation with them over a laggy video-chat. Information, it turns out, is only a part (and perhaps not a particularly significant part, at that) of what we take in when we share a space with someone.

Whether or not he was thinking of Maimonides, it was the great 20th-century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who turned his description of Moses into poetry – a rich tapestry of Biblical images evoking hope and heartbreak: 

          Moses, our teacher, only saw the face of God once – and forgot. 

          He did not want to see the wilderness,

          not even the promised land, but only the face of God. 

          He struck the rock in the fury of his longings, 

          he went up and down Mt. Sinai, he shattered the two tablets of the covenant and made a golden calf, he searched in fire and cloud. 

          But he remembered only 

          the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm, 

          not His face. 

          And he was like someone who wants 

          to remember the face of someone he loved, and can’t. 

          He made himself a police sketch from the face 

          of God and from the surface of the burning bush, and from the face of 

          Pharaoh’s daughter who leaned over him when he was an infant in the basket, 

          and he distributed the picture to all the tribes of Israel 

          and throughout the wilderness. But no one had seen 

          and no one recognized. 

          And only at the end of his life, on Mt. Nebo, did he see and die 

          with a kiss from God’s face. 

Amichai imagines Moses in the desert, missing not primarily the lushness of Egypt (that is what the people missed) – but missing the fullness of God’s presence. And we may imagine ourselves to be in a kind of collective wandering in the desert as well – in uncharted territory, uncertain about our sustenance and, just as critically, like Moses, in equal measures lonely and sustained by the radiant memory of the faces of those we love and miss.

But – and here is the key to what we may find as we begin to emerge on the other side of this ordeal – Moses’s time in the desert was not, despite Amichai’s insistence, one of unadulterated longing. Moses also learned a great deal – the entire Torah, as it is traditionally understood. And he worked selflessly and tirelessly on behalf of the Israelites, with and for whom he lived – engrossed daily in their struggles, their conflicts, and their fears. 

Yes – much of Moses’s life was in a kind of exile from God’s face, not unlike our current exile from one another’s presence, an exile we feel most palpably in our inability to sing together. And – Moses’s life and legacy were so much more: he bequeathed a generous and inexhaustible patronage patrimony of study and of service, of Torah and of example.

During these days of distancing, which seem poised to stretch into weeks and months of separation – may we keep one another’s songs alive in our hearts. And may we, like Moses, fight valiantly against isolation with our minds and our hearts, learning ideas that will change our lives and the world, and tirelessly remaining present for the small few whose presence we may share.

As I said last week, please know that this community is vast and caring – and do not hesitate to reach out as you encounter needs, even one as simple as a conversation.

Yours in friendship, and Shabbat shalom,