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Parashat Vayelech 5773 – 09/19/2012

Parashat Vayelech 5773

And I will hide My Face from them … and many evils and distress will come upon them and they will say on that day “Is it not because my Gd is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?”  And I will surely hide My Face on that day because of the great evil that they have done.  (31:17-18)

And the meaning of But I will surely conceal My face is that Gd will conceal His face another time.  For since Israel reflected in their hearts that they sinned against Gd, and it is because their Gd is not in their midst that these evils have come upon them, it would have been fitting due to Gd’s abundance of kindness that He should help them and save them, for they have already renounced idolatry [at least in their thoughts].  Therefore Scripture says that because of the great evil that they have done to place their faith in idolatry, Gd will again hide His face from them, but not like the first concealment of His face where He concealed the face of His mercy and many evils and distresses came upon them.  Rather they will be subject to the concealment of Gd’s “face of redemption,” but they will stand under the assurance But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them (Lev 26:44), until they will add to the aforementioned regret a full confession and complete repentance.

How appropriate that we read these words on Shabbat Shuvah, during the Days of Awe, when Gd’s Face is actually least hidden from us!  There is a story: shortly after his liberation from the concentration camps, the Klausenberger Rebbe had organized a synagogue, and the chazan was reading the tochachah, reading quickly and in a very soft voice, as is the custom.  The Rebbe shouted to him “read louder.”  He read a bit louder, but the Rebbe kept insisting on louder still, until the chazan was practically shouting.  Afterward the Rebbe explained that since now all the horrible predictions of the tochachah had actually taken place, it was time to announce to Gd that we were still here and it is now time for redemption.  Unfortunately the redemption has not come; perhaps Ramban’s comments will explain why.

Let us begin by trying to understand the meaning of hester panim / [Gd’s] hiding His Face.  Perhaps we can take a hint from a passage in the Talmud, where the Rabbis ask “where is there a hint of the Book of Esther in Torah?” and they quote our verse: hasteir astir panay / I will surely hide My Face.  So there is a connection between hester panim and the Book of (H)Esther.  Of course the Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible where Gd appears to be completely absent; he is not mentioned even once, although there is a tradition that whenever “the King” is mentioned, without the specification “Ahasuerus,” it refers to Gd.  Nevertheless, this too is just a hint.  On the other hand, when one considers all the amazing “coincidences” that provide, eventually, salvation for the Jewish people, it is clear that the entire story has been under Gd’s control all along.

When discussing the body, our Rabbis often compare it to a garment “clothing” our soul.  This clothing is necessary for the soul, which is completely spiritual, to be able to interact with the physical world, as it is said: Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society (Mark Twain).  Now clothes have an interesting dual functionality – they both conceal and reveal.  The conceal part is obvious – clothes cover us and hide what we’d rather not have anyone see.  On the other hand, by draping the body, clothes also reveal its shape.  Thus, the invisible man wore clothes in order to not be invisible.  In the same way, the soul, which is completely invisible to the senses, is both concealed and revealed by being clothed in the body.  It is concealed in the sense that the internal activity of the soul is hidden – we don’t see each other’s thoughts and feelings; but it is also revealed in the actions that are projected into the physical world by the medium of the body.  Thus we can sometimes read someone’s feelings by looking at his “body language,” and we can certainly infer what his belief system is from his behavior.

Gd is sometimes described as “the soul of the world.”  I think this gives us an insight into hester panim.  If Gd is the soul of the world, then the world is like “clothing” for Gd – it can both conceal and reveal.  It is obvious how the world conceals Gd’s presence.  The world seems to act according to a set of natural laws, the laws of cause and effect.  Thus, in Megillat Esther we have a chain of cause and effect from Esther’s ascension to royalty, Mordechai’s “happening” to overhear of the plot to assassinate the king, the king’s not being able to sleep, Haman’s “happening” to be in the court at exactly the right time in the middle of the night, etc.  Where is the great miracle?  Where is the splitting of the sea?  Gd is nowhere to be found, at least not for those who are not looking for Him.

On the other hand, nature reveals Gd as well, as the Psalmist sings The heavens reveal the glory of Gd, the Firmament declares His handiwork (19:2).  For nature is the realm in which Gd acts, and from the nature of Gd’s actions we can begin to infer something of Gd’s nature, even if, as finite creatures, we will never be able to know Gd’s nature fully.  We are able to study the laws of nature and get a hint, from the way the world operates, how Gd operates, as we have seen from the many examples from Physics I have used in these columns.  In a sense, Gd is not hidden in nature at all, if we have eyes to see and a mind to understand beyond the surface of physical existence.

Perhaps then we can say that hester panim is a matter of perception.  For one whose perception is caught up on the material level, Gd is definitely hidden.  He is watching us, but we cannot see Him (this is expressed beautifully in Shir haShirim / Song of Songs).  For someone whose perception is more subtle, who can transcend the boundaries of manifest existence, Gd is not nearly so hidden – in fact, we can begin to see Gd in all the forms and phenomena of creation.  What our passage is telling us then is that the Jewish people will go through times when our perception is more clouded and times when it is less so.  In particular, in our exile among the nations, where our unique spiritual abilities and tendencies are detached from their natural habitat, our perception naturally is not as clear as it was during the period when we lived in our own Land, and the Temple stood to purify us and connect us to Gd, both individually and as a nation.

Nonetheless, even in exile it is possible to do t’shuvah – that is, to return to Gd, return to the roots of our soul.  This very process has the effect of cleaning the windows of our perception, to begin focusing our attention away from all the material blandishments of the world, and towards Gd and His commandments, so that we may purify our bodies and our souls and draw closer to Gd’s infinite light “that is hidden away for the righteous.”  But, as Ramban points out, the t’shuvah has to be complete in order to be completely effective.  Partial t’shuvah gives partial results – perhaps we will be spared the worst of the brutality that we’ve suffered, but still the complete redemption will not be found.  It is only when the t’shuvah will be complete, when we dedicate ourselves wholly, body, mind and spirit, to Gd, that we will get past the hester panim completely.  Then we will be fit to return to our Land, to our holy Temple, never to fall from that status again.

I wish you all an easy and meaningful fast and a joyous Sukkot!