Meditation on the Face of Your Neighbor

Find your neighbor. Not the person you came in with–someone else.

Turn and look at your neighbor’s face. Not into their eyes, not yet. Don’t smile, or nod, or perform any of the gestures we normally use to reassure each other and get past the nervousness of face-to-face contact. Just live with the nervousness. Pay attention to it. Look at your neighbor. Examine their features. They are doing the same with you right now, but that isn’t important. Just look.

To begin with, study your neighbor’s forehead–its contours, the curvature of the cranium sweeping upward to form a snug resting place for the brain. It’s a shape that’s so universally human and yet so unique to this individual person. Study its lines of care and laughter. This is where God placed a mark on Cain, to settle his fear that in his wanderings he would be recognized and executed for a murderer. Actually, we are all born with that mark–a sign written in blazing letters spelling out the primal commandment: “Do not murder.” Cain’s tragedy was that he wasn’t able to recognize that mark until it was too late. Let your eyes wander over the face of your neighbor. Search for that mark, the word of God, written to you on your neighbor’s face.

Take your time, but once you’ve had time to really take in the face of your neighbor, close your eyes for a moment and just hold the image of that face in your mind. See it floating there before you in all its silent expressiveness and vulnerability. Take a moment to contemplate the riddle of the human face, so perfectly contained in this one here before you–that the face is both a window and a mask. It expresses and at the same time conceals. Your neighbor’s face speaks eloquently of all they have ever seen and done, all the joy and the anguish, all the fear and the pleasure. And yet, at the same time, it conceals their essential being, marking the boundary between you and an inward experience, infinitely vast, to which you have no access, sealed off from you by the boundary of the face which says, “This far and no further.”

Open your eyes now and for the first time, or as if for the first time, look into the eyes of your neighbor. Take a moment now, both of you, to look into each other’s eyes. Let your face respond naturally. Take note of this experience. What passes between you, from one person to the other, through the eyes? The eyes have been described as a window into the soul. For some this window seems transparent. For some it seems nearly opaque. Right now, try to pay attention to what you see through the windows of your neighbor’s eyes. No matter how clearly you see, it is always across a distance, as though a great depth separated you, though you are standing just a few feet apart. This fundamental distance is not wrong or unnatural. It is simply the boundary marker that marks the separation between the I and the you, the self and the other. One of the most profound laws in the Torah is not to move the boundary markers placed by our ancestors. This is the beginning of ethics.

Reach across that boundary now with your hand. Take the hand of your neighbor in your own. Still you remain here on this side, your neighbor on the other. Through this gesture of clasping hands you are able to make contact here in the shared space between you. Reach out now with your other hand and take the hand of another, and that person to the hand of another, and so on until we are all connected. Here we all are, together.

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