The Face of God

by Hekhalot Hymns (Anonymous)

English version by T. Carmi
Original Language Hebrew

Lovely face, majestic face,
     face of beauty, face of flame,
the face of the Lord God of Israel
     when He sits upon His throne of glory,
     robed in praise upon His seat of splendour.
His beauty surpasses
     the beauty of the aged,
His splendour outshines
     the splendour of newly-weds
          in their bridal chamber.

Whoever looks at Him
     is instantly torn;
whoever glimpses His beauty
     immediately melts away.
Those who serve Him today
     no longer serve Him tomorrow;
those who serve Him tomorrow
     no longer serve Him afterwards;
for their strength fails and their faces are charred,
their hearts reel and their eyes grow dim
     at the splendour and radiance
          of their king's beauty.

Beloved servants, lovely servants,
     swift servants, light-footed servants,
who stand before the stone of the throne
     of glory,
who wait upon the wheel
     of the chariot.
When the sapphire of the throne of glory
     whirls at them,
when the wheel of the chariot
     hurls past them,
those on the right
     now stand again to the left,
those on the left
     now stand again to the right,
those in front
     now stand again in back,
those in back
     now stand again in front.

He who sees the one says,
     'That is the other'.
And he who sees the other says,
     'That is the one'.
For the visage of the one
     is like the visage of the other;
and the visage of the other
     is like the visage of the one.

Happy the King
     who has such servants,
and happy the servants
     who have such a King.
Happy the eye
     that sees
     and feeds
     upon this wondrous light --
          a wondrous vision
          and most strange!

-- from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Edited by T. Carmi

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Something today in honor of Hanukkah...

This song inspired by the face of God strongly hearkens back to the Aaronic or Priestly Blessing from the Torah (Numbers 6:24 - 27):

The LORD bless you and keep you:
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The LORD lift up his face upon you, and give you peace.


There are several strong images of Merkavah mysticism in this ancient song. We have a few references to the "wheel of the chariot." The word Merkavah can be literally translated as "chariot" or "chariot of light." It is the vehicle that mediates between the awareness of the devout mystic and the heavenly realms. This wheel imagery also evokes Ezekiel's vision of a heavenly wheel, often seen as a fundamental vision of the Merkavah by Jewish mystics.

The Merkavah is sometimes also described as the shining "seat of the Most High." Someone looking for yogic parallels might see the Merkavah as representing the scintillating crown chakra.

In Jewish and early Christian mysticism, we often get enigmatic references to the "bridal chamber." The bridal chamber is the place of union between the king or bridegroom (God) and the servant or bride (purified individual consciousness). It is in the bridal chamber that the two become one as "newly-weds" and experience the bliss of union. The bridal chamber, in other words, is the holy of holies within the soul, the meeting ground between the Eternal and the individual.

I love the line, "Whoever looks at Him / immediately melts away." According to a translator's note, the literal phrase is something like "Whoever looks at him is emptied like a ladle." What a beautiful metaphor for how, overcome with the vision of God, the ego-self pours into that vastness. It suggests release, emptiness, purification, while at the same time a merging with the immense vision of the Divine.

This is language that could just as easily have come to us from a Buddhist work.

The song continues with the lines:

Those who serve Him today
     no longer serve Him tomorrow;
those who serve Him tomorrow
     no longer serve Him afterwards;


It is not that mystics at this stage stop serving God; rather, that there is no separate individual left to do the serving. Their "faces are charred" -- the separate identity is lost in the splendor of the vision. And when their "eyes grow dim," it is not that they go blind in the literal sense; instead, the normal vision of multiplicity is lost. This radiant vision of oneness is described by many mystics as a sort of blindness. You may see the surface and form of things, but beneath it all is only the one radiance.

I'm also fascinated by the lines:

those on the right
     now stand again to the left,
those on the left
     now stand again to the right,
those in front
     now stand again in back,
those in back
     now stand again in front.


We've got a total reversal that also suggests a total unity. Opposites flip and become the other until no sense of polarity can remain. You find similar lines in the great Gnostic work the Gospel of Thomas. Everything is flipped, reversed, to be set back into proper order.

And near the end:

He who sees the one says,
     'That is the other'.
And he who sees the other says,
     'That is the one'.
For the visage of the one
     is like the visage of the other;
and the visage of the other
     is like the visage of the one.


These lines suggest to me the merging of the ego-self and the endless multiplicity of the universe into the divine unity, until the "other / is like the visage of the one."

And continuously we return to the vision of mysterious, soul-nourishing light:

Happy the eye
     that sees
     and feeds
     upon this wondrous light --
          a wondrous vision
          and most strange!



Recommended Books: Hekhalot Hymns (Anonymous)

The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse Beholders of Divine Secrets: Mysticism and Myth in the Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism





The Face of God