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Facial Recognition

Friday, 22 February, 2019 - 5:34 am

Nowadays, airplane seats might recognize who is sitting in them. Your phone unlocks by looking at you. You can cross borders simply by removing your sunglasses, so your iris can be scanned.

Facial recognition is now part of life. For better or for worse.

We can recognize people by their faces. But, does a face tell us who is really inside?


The only sacred vessel that this week’s parsha Ki Tisa introduces is the Kiyor, the Laver. The kohanim (priests) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) were required to wash their hands and feet prior to officiating.

Similarly, the Code of Jewish Law mandates that we wash our hands prior to prayer. Since prayer replaces the Temple worship, we likewise sanctify ourselves in preparation.

Rushing into prayer is better than not praying. But, it can’t compare to the serenity and sanctity created by separating from the mundane chaos of life.

Interestingly, when Maimonides mentions this ritual, he adds that we must also wash the face before praying.

Why does he add the face into the mix? The priests were not required to wash their faces – only their hands and feet. Why add something new?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the difference between hands and feet versus the face:

Hands and feet serve as the body’s primary means of physical activity. The face, in contrast, is home to our higher faculties and senses, such as sight, speech, etc. The face thus represents the things that we are involved in not only technically, but also mentally and emotionally. The face represents investment of a person’s entire persona.

Based on this, we can understand the additional washing required by Maimonides. In the times of the Beit Hamikdash the Jewish people were in an elevated spiritual state. G-d’s presence shined. There was a centralized place of prayer, study and community.

Their ‘face’ was always in an uplifted state. Only their extremities needed cleaning up, due to bodily engagement in the material world.

Since its destruction, however, Jews find themselves separated from their homeland, their traditions and their own people. In exile, our ‘faces’ are impacted as well. Our mentality, our conception of life may no longer be centered on Torah ideals.

Therefore, it isn’t sufficient to wash only the hands and feet. Our character and psyche is also immersed in unG-dly affairs. It too needs realignment before talking to G-d.


Imagine the distractions that Maimonides faced 800+ years ago. Now, imagine the distractions we face every day today. Or, every hour. Need I say more?

With so much of our attention immersed in distractions, it is refreshing to step away for prayer. Washing our face doesn’t just mean a refreshing dose of H2O. It is also a refreshing moment to refocus on what life is really all about.

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