Parashat Veyelekh: God’s “Hiding of the Face” (Hester Panim)

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October 02 2008

Deuteronomy 31:16-16-18 states:

The L-rd said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.

The Hebrew idiom haster astir denotes a punishment contrary to the standard, active divine response to sin. Deuteronomy 31 expresses a punishment of silence. God’s immanence is no longer felt by the children of Israel. When God forgets His people, all kinds of suffering can befall them, and he will not intervene.

Throughout Jewish history, the notion of hester panim has been a category through which theologians have sought to understand how God could allow the suffering of the Jewish people. To be sure, the destruction of the first and the Second Temple and the Hadrianic persecutions were horrific events. Yet, Hazal’s attempts to give reasons why the events happened underscored their perception that the hurbanot were punishments for specific sins. Thus, God was still actively involved in His governance of the Jewish people by punishing them.

Yet, over the course of the millennia, some of the sufferings of the Jewish people have been so great, so terrible, that Jewish theologians needed another category to explain the magnitude of the suffering. No quid pro quo punishment for sin, but hester panim might be the only category that could make sense out of a state of affairs that could allow for a lawless society in which Might makes right, and could allow for a world in which Jews are just taken into ditches at the edge of the forest and shot, or marched into gas chambers to await their deaths. (The late Jewish philosopher/theologian Emil Fackenheim used the phrase “Planet Auschwitz,” for the world of the extermination camps was indeed a world different from our own.) Indeed, perhaps the most horrifying example of hester panim in history was the Shoah. Moreover, two distinct violations of the moral law that we believe characterizes God’s relationship to the universe occurred: the suffering of the innocent (in this case, the brutal murder of 6 million innocent Jews) and the prosperity of (many of the) wicked. (Many Nazis died in their beds, and were not punished in this false world for their crimes!)

In my opinion, a key passage is the biblical verse concerning hester panim is the phrase last verse is on that day. The Gemara in Massekhet Hagigah (5b) already notices the apparently superfluous words, and comments as follows:

Raba said: Although I hide my face from them, I shall speak to them in a dream. Rabbi Joseph said: His hand is stretched over us, as it is said: And I have covered you in the shadow of my hand (Isaiah 51:16).

Perhaps on that day can emphasize another point. Even if during the course of Jewish history there will be specific epochs of hester panim, such periods do not characterize the entire sweep of history. One must look at Jewish history not from a narrow perspective of a year, a decade, or even a generation, not even from the perspective of Longue durיe (the term used by the French Annales School of historical writing to designate their approach to the study of history, which gave priority to long-term historical structures over events), but under the aspect of eternity. And the Jewish people are guaranteed by God that His love for His people will not die. Hester Panim is not a permanent condition of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Over 43 years ago, on Shabbat Parashat Hazon, Dr. Lamm, in one of his derashot as Rabbi of the Jewish Center, addressed the hester panim that was the Holocaust.

“History is irrevocable. We may protest it and bemoan it and regret it, but it is there despite us. A tremendous paradox emerged from the paroxysms of our times, and we must strive to understand it: during one lifetime we witnessed the nadir of Jewish history, the descent into the very pit — and the rebirth of Jewish independence in pride and glory. The holocaust was the most intense, the most dismal hester panim we have ever experienced, God abandoned us to the vilest scorpions that ever assumed the shape of man. From our agony and our dishonor we cried to heaven, but our cries could not pierce the metal veil, which only reflected our shrieking back upon us to mock us in our terrible loneliness and torment, Auschwitz was the device of human genius as God turned aside. Buchenwald was built by human toil and intellect as God closed His eye. Yet we survived the experience: crippled, maimed, decimated, disgraced, we yet trudged back from the death camps and displaced persons camps, from the fury and the wrath, and from the shameful silence of the onlookers, to a land promised us 3500 years ago. Providence did not allow us to be utterly destroyed. The veil of God ensconced us in misery; but through it, mysteriously, there shone a vision of love.


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