Facing and Losing Face

An old hobbled woman
a beggar in the street
was drinking tea in a paved courtyard
in the shade of the oak.
It was wondrous to me how she could break free
from the terrors of a cursed fate
to refined etiquette
to regal manners that take wing
in a life of bounty, in a life of beauty…

But only when her heart overflowed its banks
and she offered me a jar of honey
that she had been given in some doorway
did I discover to my surprise
that my love still hovered in the lower spheres
for I had to shatter seven walls of refusal
to be able to accept from her hand
honey offered as a gift of friendship.

(Click here for the poem in Hebrew and English)

The Israeli poet, Zelda, offers a reflection on giving and receiving, on seeing and being seen.  A woman wonders at the sight of a beggar who can face the world with her need but does not “lose face” because of it.   At the end of a poem filled with accounts of sight and insight, the beggar’s offer of a gift challenges the other’s view of herself along with her sense of love for the needy—a view seemingly maintained from the safe distance of privilege.

It is a complicated matter to regard with a single glance the person along with the need while also viewing the person apart from her need.   Anonymous giving, so valued by the sages, avoids the gaze.  Anonymous giving insulates the needy from the real or imagined pitying gaze even as it insulates the giver from the complexity of face to face encounter.  But face to face giving has its merits, as well.

In a well known Talmud story, also characterized by the drama of sight and insight, giving and receiving, events conspire on a certain day to bring Mar Ukba, a hero of anonymous giving, and his wife, a hero of face to face giving, together at the door of a regular recipient of Mar Ukba’s anonymous gifts.  The events of that day offer a ripe moment in which to examine two ways of giving and receiving:

There was a poor man in Mar Ukba’s neighborhood into whose doorway Mar Ukba used to throw four coins every day.  Once, the poor man thought: “I’ll be ready today and get a look at who does me this kindness.”  On that day, it happened that Mar Ukba was late at the Bet Midrash/Study House and his wife came to meet him.   As soon as the poor man—waiting within—heard movement at the door, he began to go out after them.  When Mar Ukba and his wife saw that the door was opening, they ran from him, taking cover in a communal fireplace from which the fire had just been swept.   Mar Ukba’s feet began to burn on the hot floor and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His wife said to him: “Put your feet on top of mine.”  He did so and his feet were insulated from the heat; but his pride was wounded. (Was her merit greater than his?) She read the emotions in his face and explained:  “I am usually at home and so my gifts are direct.”  (Click here for story in original Aramaic and English)

Of the story’s three characters, two of them were not afraid to “lose face.”  The poor man wanted to greet his benefactor.  Mar Ukba’s wife, we soon learn, was used to returning the gaze of the needy.  But Mar Ukba, the master of anonymous giving, was scandalized by the possibility of standing face to face so he and his wife fled.

In the communal hearth, still hot from the fire, he who took pains not to embarrass was embarrassed.  Apparently, a miracle was made for his wife but not on account of his valiant effort to remain anonymous.  Mar Ukba’s wife, who always looked the needy in the eye, soothed his need with an explanation:  Her ability to withstand the heat was no miracle; it was a matter of conditioning.  The sages value anonymous giving, but something important is forged in the heat of regarding the other.

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