Hidden Faces: Presence and Absence in Relationships

The concept of Hester Panim, a concealed face, is one that the Rabbinic tradition uses to distinguish between the Biblical era, in which G-d’s presence was felt directly, and the Rabbinic era, in which G-d’s presence is behind, within, but not directly observable. Presence and absence are key concepts in my own life journey, and I suspect I am not the only one.

One of the key points in a child’s development typically happens around ages 4-6 (not coincidentally, the age at which most start school) as they begin to develop what social scientists refer to as “Theory of Mind.” (ToM). ToM is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, so that you can make educated guesses about not only your own mental and emotional states, but also those of other people. It is the dawning of a child’s ability to truly engage in reciprocal relationships, and it is the opening door that enables them to move from parallel to interactive play and making friendships with peers. It has been argued that our ability to use ToM is one of the core features defining human nature, as it enables us to navigate the complex social structures we create in our societies.

Once you begin to engage in reciprocal relationships, you start to care very much about some new things. One is fairness. A basic ToM would lead you to guess that if David gives Sally a candy, he probably likes her. If David gives you a candy too, then he probably likes you, too. If David gives Sally a candy, but doesn’t give you a candy, what does that mean? IT’S NOT FAIR! Underneath that complaint there is the important assumption: that your relationship with David is unstable, tenuous, or perhaps even broken. Instead of being present and engaged together, your relationship with David will be more hidden and obscured. As children mature, so does their theory of mind, so that eventually they may come to understand complex and nuanced social-emotional interactions. Our obsession with fairness, however, remains a critical characteristic of our personalities, as does our emotional reaction to the presence or absence of those we care about.

Back to G-d. In this week’s Torah Portion, G-d tells Bnai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) through Moses that if they don’t remain faithful (upholding their end of the covenant), he will “hide his face” from them (Deuteronomy 31:17). In the parent/child metaphor of their relationship, this is literally the worst thing he could threaten them with – absence. He didn’t say he would be angry – that would still indicate presence, as would disappointment, worry, sadness, hurt, or even hate. If they don’t do their part in maintaining the covenantal relationship, then he will depart that relationship. For a child, nothing could be more terrifying or damaging than a parent’s absence.

That is why I began this blog discussing presence and absence. In most of our relationships, particularly those with our children, 95% of what we need to do is show up. It is not enough to simply be present physically, though – we have to be present emotionally, mentally, and sometimes spiritually. To truly be present, we might need to prepare – we might need to enter the room thoughtfully. Perhaps with a big smile, or with our arms wide open for a hug. Perhaps quietly, respecting the other’s need for silence or a sad mood. We need to demonstrate that we are not just serving our own needs, but that we are considering and responding to the other – spouse, parents, children, friends. This is the key to all relationships, including a relationship with G-d – if you show up openly and thoughtfully, you can find reciprocity. If you don’t, you’ll find the other remains hidden and absent.

As we close these ten days of repentance and move towards Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), may we all find the strength to increase our presence across all of our relationships, and in doing so reveal ourselves and invite others to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom, and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,