Recognizing Faces

Here’s some shocking news, Brad Pitt is not perfect. He has a condition known as facial blindness, the inability to recognize faces. I am familiar with the condition. I have a friend who also struggles to distinguish faces. Perhaps you can relate. You likely have had an occasion where you met someone who knows you, but you don’t know them. The situation is more than embarrassing. The impaired blessing of acknowledging another person becomes a curse.

Pitt’s condition makes him seem remote, aloof, inaccessible, and self-absorbed. When another person doesn’t offer us their recognition we feel less valued. But the truth is, Pitt’s ashamed that he can’t remember people he meets and means no harm when he doesn’t recognize them.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, artificial intelligence is advancing in facial recognition. To the delight of travelers, facial recognition technology is increasingly used at airports to screen passengers boarding planes and through customs. Facial recognition technology will be coming to a device near you. Soon Brad Pitt will hold up his phone to identify any approaching person.

Facing another person acknowledges their humanity. Looking at someone creates a meaningful connection. In fact, there is holiness associated with facing another person. It comes from the Torah. The oldest formulaic blessing in Torah reads, literally, “May God bless you and keep you, May God turn God’s face to you and grace you, May God turn God’s face toward you and put peace upon you.” Numbers 6:24-26. By contrast, to forewarn the Hebrews to be faithful and obedient, God threatens with the words “I will set My face against you.” Lev.26:17.

Your ability to recognize and greet others is a blessing for you and a blessing you give. We enjoy being identified and welcomed just by a smiling face acknowledging us. When we are angry with others, or wish retribution, or harbor ill will, we turn our face. Denying our visage upon seeing another person is like cursing them.

When happening upon people who have hurt me or who I do not like, I try to hide my face from them. I do this to shelter myself from feeling badly. Perhaps Torah is teaching that the holier exercise is to offer our face to acknowledge the humanity of all people we meet. If I can fully offer my face to people who disturb me, how much more so can I show a loving face to the people who care about me. This is a difficult exercise but one that transforms us from feeling cursed to being a blessing – acknowledging that we must face every person to be fully the person God intended us to be.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame