Throughout the next seven weeks – the entire month of Elul and through the high holidays spanning the first three weeks of Tishrei – the custom is to recite chapter 27 of Psalms every morning and evening. The eighth verse of chapter 27 contains a tremendous secret. It reads as follows:
:לְךָ אָמַר לבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְ-הֹוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
Lecha amar libi, bakshu panai, es panecha A-donai avakeish.
On Your behalf, my heart says, “seek my face.” Your face, O Lord, I will seek.
This verse, like all of the verses of Psalms, is poetic and somewhat cryptic. Written by King David, the verse addresses Hashem and informs Him that there is a voice deep within us that speaks on His behalf and instructs us to “seek My face.” What is unclear, however, is whose face we are to seek – does “my face” refer to God’s face or to our own? If the voice is ours, emanating from our heart, and it urges us to seek “my” face, then it seems to be our own face that is to be sought. If, however, the voice is speaking on God’s behalf, as the beginning of the verse indicates, then “my” face may in fact be referring to the face of God. However, the voice may also be speaking on God’s behalf and expressing His desire that we should seek our own face. Some clarity is provided by the second half of the verse, which indicates “Your face, O Lord, I will seek.” Yet we are left with a question of which and whose face the first part of the verse refers to.
Before we can answer this question, we must understand what is this “face” that we are seeking, whether it is God’s or our own? Can it be said that God has a face? And if it is referring to our own face, then why does it need to be sought when it is plainly visible, and all we need to do is look in a mirror? However, the Hebrew word “פּנים/PaNiM/face” is closely related to the word “פּניםיות/PNiMyus/inwardness,” and refers not only to one’s physical visage, but also to one’s innermost essence. While there would seem to be a great distance and difference between one’s face (her/his outermost and most superficial attribute) and one’s soul (her/his innermost core), in fact the interior and exterior of a person are ultimately supposed to be perfectly attuned and aligned. That is why the Hebrew terms “panim/face” and “pnimyus/inwardness” derive from the same root (פּנם/PNM). It is only on account of the darkness of this world that they are alienated from one another. And this is what the voice of our heart is telling us in this verse on God’s behalf – that our task is to find the “Panim/face” that we have lost. That face is obviously not the one that stares back at us in the mirror, but rather our true face, our deepest inwardness, the “face” of our soul.
The first part of the verse thus declares “On Your behalf, God, my heart tells me to seek my own face,” my own self and soul, from which I have become disconnected and lost. But if so, then why does the second half of the verse say that it is “Your face,” God’s face, that we are to pursue?
In his work Tanya, the Alter Rebbe, reveals the profound esoteric secret hidden in this verse of Psalms. Within our innermost interior, we will find not only our own soul, but we will discover what constitutes that soul: “Nitzot Elokus she’bchol nefesh Yisroel/A spark of God that is in every soul of Israel” (Tanya, Igeres Hakodesh, Igeres 4). The foundation of our soul, the Alter Rebbe informs us, is a portion of God that He has concealed within us. We, and every component of our physical universe, are sparks of God that have been hidden within a material exterior in order to create a realm of multiplicity. God creates such multiplicity so that He can express His infinite nature to give, and because the light that is revealed subsequent to darkness is far more brilliant than the original light itself (as explained at length in chapter 1).
With this remarkable insight from the Alter Rebbe – that the soul is a veritable spark of God – we can answer our question of whose “face” it is that the voice of our soul directs us to seek. We are to seek our own inwardness, which is the soul that is hidden deep within us, and and when we plumb the deepest depths of our soul, we will find not only our own face, but ultimately, the very face of God! The first portion of King David’s verse, “Bakshu panai/seek my face,” and the second portion of the verse, “es panecha A-donai avakeish/Your face God I will seek,” are thus not conflicting or confounding, because they are phases of the same search and aspects of the same reality. Our essential self and God are not distinct or separate, they are One! The face of God is within you! It is your own inwardness and your deepest self!
The custom is to recite this chapter of Psalms twice a day throughout Elul and the high holidays because this realization of our Godly core is precisely the work of “teshuvah/return” that we are supposed to be engaged in at this holy time. Teshuvah is not simply “repentance” for our past failings and misdeeds. True teshuvah is “return,” peeling off all of the layers of crust that have covered our core and returning to what we ultimately are, pure Godliness.
When we find the “Pnei Hashem/face of God” within us, all of our blemishes and imperfections fall away. We move into the new year with a renewed awareness of our Godly essence, and with this awareness comes the clarity and confidence to know that Hashem will provide us everything we need in the year ahead to fulfill the divine task for which we have been created.