Facial Recognition

Last month, for my birthday, my husband bought me a new cell phone. It's a big step up for the one I've been using for many years, which didn't hold a charge well and had cracks in the screen patched with scotch tape. This new phone is fast and bright, but the most amazing feature to me is its facial recognition ability -- that is, it unlocks automatically when I'm looking directly into it and it can "see" my face.

Last month, for my birthday, my husband bought me a new cell phone. It's a big step up for the one I've been using for many years, which didn't hold a charge well and had cracks in the screen patched with scotch tape. This new phone is fast and bright, but the most amazing feature to me is its facial recognition ability -- that is, it unlocks automatically when I'm looking directly into it and it can "see" my face.

Unfortunately, I've learned that my new phone doesn't recognize me when I'm wearing a face mask. This has become apparent to me when I find myself in the grocery store aisle trying to pull up my shopping list notes, or when I'm walking somewhere and want to send a text message. Then, I have to enter a 6-digit(!) code instead to unlock it. Obviously, this isn't a serious problem, but it has gotten me thinking about the power of seeing faces and the real challenge we've experienced for these past 10 months, as we have lost most of our access to unmitigated, IRL ("in real life"), face-to-face interaction, with all but members of our own household/pod. Most of our interactions now take place either through screens, or from behind masks, or from so far away that it's hard to really see each other.

The power of seeing a face is sprinkled through our religious texts. Earlier in Genesis, Jacob was so taken by a divine encounter that he named a place Peniel (literally: "Face of God"). In Exodus, Moses desperately wants to see God's face but cannot. Psalm 27:8 croons: "To you, my heart says: 'Seek my face.' Your face, Adonai, I seek." But, our texts don't stop there, with the human desire to see God's face; they are also consumed with the idea that nothing else parallels the experience of seeing the face of another human being directly.

In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayiggash, we continue reading the long and circuitous Joseph saga. By now, Joseph has descended to Egypt and then risen in power, where he has administered food during years of famine. His father, Jacob, has been grieving for many years over the loss of his son, and one powerful climax of the narrative comes this week, as Jacob learns (from his other sons) that Joseph is still alive. When Jacob is first told this news about his son, it's hard for him to assimilate it: the text says, "his heart was numb and he didn't believe" (Gen. 45:26); he decides to travel to Egypt to see for himself. It's not until he arrives in Goshen, Egypt -- and Joseph comes by chariot to meet him, and "embraces him around the neck and weeps on his neck a good while" -- that Jacob finally seems to believe fully that Joseph is still alive. Here, the text says:

"Vayomer Yisrael el Yosef, amutah ha-pa'am acharei re'oti et panecha ki od'cha chai." "And Israel (i.e. Jacob) said to Joseph: I can die this time, now that I have seen your face, that you are still alive" (Gen. 46:30).

The 18th-century Moroccan commentator Or Ha-Chaim (Chaim ibn Attar) has a beautiful note on this verse. He explains that when Jacob had first heard the news, he had been satisfied that Joseph was indeed alive and well, physically. However, without being able to see his son's face, he wasn't able to ascertain the state of Joseph's soul. He writes "It was only when he set eyes on Joseph that he realized that Joseph had not changed." In other words, only in person could he see for himself that Joseph's spiritual connection, his righteousness, and his soul all remained intact. Hearing about Joseph's life through messengers and across distance was a step in the right direction, but just didn't have the power and potency of face-to-face contact.

During this pandemic, I suspect many of us can relate to Jacob's need to see his son in person. Like Jacob who hears news about Joseph from afar, we can indeed learn things about each other's lives even through masked conversations or via phone, FaceTime or Zoom. These mitigated contacts are the best we can do right now, and we appreciate them and are doing our best to make the most of them. And yet, we want more; many of us still crave unmitigated human contact. Like Jacob, we yearn for the connection that comes with an embrace around the neck and the ability to see another person's face up close.

In Berachot 9b, the Talmud takes up the halakhic question: "From what time can one recite Shema in the morning?" The gemara brings a baraita (an earlier rabbinic teaching) that says the following:

"Rabbi Meir says that the day begins when one can distinguish between two similar animals, e.g., a wolf and a dog. Rabbi Akiva provides a different sign, and says that the day begins when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a donkey and a wild donkey. And others say: When one can see another person, who is merely an acquaintance (Jerusalem Talmud) from a distance of four cubits and recognize him."

The real question the Talmud is engaging here is about the transition from darkness to light. As we cycle between day and night and back to day, the Talmud wants to tease out the boundary: when it is light enough that we can call it day again? In the context of Covid-19, a contemporary version of this question might be: when will this pandemic be "over"? The opinion held by the "others" is all about facial recognition. (As an interesting side note, a biblical cubit is ~19 inches, so this "distance of four cubits" is pretty equivalent to today's "social distance" of six feet!) While we know that there won't be a single moment when we shift from being inside the pandemic to being out of it, one valuable measure of it being "day" again may come when we are able to stand within six feet of our friends and loved ones and see their faces again.

We are obviously not there yet. However, each vaccine administered and every day that goes by (now that we've moved past the winter solstice) gets us a little closer to daylight.

Until then, we are all a bit like Jacob, while Joseph is still down in Egypt. In the vein of the Or Ha-Chaim commentary, we trust that our friends and family members are physically there, but we also know that we cannot yet see each other as fully and deeply as we would like. However, we continue to care about each other's souls, and to crave closer contact. We eagerly anticipate the day when -- like Joseph and Jacob -- we will be able to reunite fully... with embracing and weeping and direct face-to-face contact. These reunions will represent a deeper kind of recognition and closeness.

Oh, and when the pandemic is over and the masks come off, I'll finally be able to appreciate that cool facial recognition feature on my new phone, too! :-)

With hope that it won't be too much longer now until we can see each other face-to-face again. Meanwhile, hang in there, and please be in touch if you need anything.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum