1. Moshe is forewarned that Bnai Yisrael will reject Hashem
Hashem forewarns Moshe that after his death the nation will abandon Hashem, turn to foreign gods, and disregard their covenant to observe the Torah. In response, the nation will endure all of the terrible consequences described in the Torah. The above passages describe the reaction of the people to the troubles that will befall them. They will declare that Hashem is not among them. Hashem adds that He will hide His face from the nation because of its adoption of idolatry.
The commentators explain that the above two passages are difficult to understand. Ohr HaChayim explains the problem. The passages seem to be describing a series of events. In response to the nation’s sins Hashem will hide His face. The people will experience terrible suffering. Their reaction will be to attribute their suffering to Hashem’s abandonment of the nation. Then Hashem will further hide His face.
It seems that the nation’s realization that their troubles are a result of Hashem’s abandonment of Bnai Yisrael is a positive step toward repentance. In fact, Maimonides explains that at a time of affliction it is essential for Bnai Yisrael to realize that its suffering is not merely a chance occurrence. The nation must realize and accept that its suffering is a consequence of its behaviors and represents Hashem’s response to these behaviors. Maimonides explains that with this realization the nation embarks upon the road of repentance and secures the return of Hashem’s favor. Yet, in the above passages the nation’s recognition of Hashem’s role in its sufferings only provokes Hashem to continue to hide His face from the nation and to ignore its suffering.
2. Hashem’s relationship with Bnai Yisrael during times of suffering
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an important interpretation of these passages that responds to this question. His interpretation begins by addressing a strange aspect of the message in the passages. These passages use a number of different phrases and terms to describe the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael in times of troubles and affliction. Hashem is described as “leaving” the nation. He is described as hiding His face. The people describe their situation by declaring that Hashem is not among them. Sforno asks: Are all of the phrases and terms synonymous or do they differ from one another?
Sforno explains that each of these terms and phrases has a unique meaning and message. The phrase “I will leave them” does not mean that Hashem will abandon His people. It means that He will deliver them into the hands of their oppressors. He will not rescue them. “I will hide My face” means that Hashem will not demonstrate compassion. He will conduct Himself as if He does not observe the people’s suffering. The declaration that “Hashem is not in my midst” means that the nation will conclude that Hashem has abandoned it. Based on his interpretation of these terms and phrases, Sforno explains the meaning of the passages.
Hear our voices Hashem our G-d. Have compassion and mercy upon us. Accept with favor and mercy our prayers. (Amidah)
3. We ask Hashem to respond to our petitions with mercy
Before considering Sforno’s explanation of the above passages, it will be helpful to consider the message in the above excerpt from the Amidah – the central prayer in our liturgy. We ask Hashem to accept our prayers with favor and mercy. This seems to be an odd phrasing of our request from Hashem. We are asking Hashem to hear our petitions and to respond with favor. It is self evident that Hashem’s favorable response is an expression of His mercy. Yet, for some odd reason we ask Hashem to respond with mercy. Is not any response of Hashem to our petitions an expression of mercy? For what more are we asking when we specify that we seek a merciful response from Hashem?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that although we ask Hashem for many things that we believe that we need and must have, sometimes we are actually best served by not receiving the response that we seek. Sometimes the very thing for which we beseech Hashem will actually harm us and not benefit us.
A friend provided me with a wonderful example that beautifully illustrates Rav Soloveitchik’s insight. He told me that when he was a young man he had been a very successful entrepreneur. He worked very hard and he became quite wealthy. He spent his wealth freely. His financial resources allowed him to buy whatever he needed without considering the cost.
My friend experienced a series of misfortunes and lost much of his wealth. His life changed. Suddenly, he needed to carefully consider each personal expenditure. The purchase of even a pair of sneakers required deliberation and often compromise. But he was young and confident. He set to work at regaining his fortune. It took many years for him to recover but finally he restored his wealth.
My friend told me that each and every day he prayed to Hashem – he begged Him – to help him regain his wealth. But for those long hard years Hashem did not respond. Only after many years and endless fervent prayer did he receive the response he sought. It seemed that Hashem was not listening.
However, during this long hard period of his life he was slowly and painfully learning important new lessons. He came to realize that in his drive to build his fortune he had neglected his wife and children. He had not shown them the love and attention that they deserved. He came to understand that he had made a poor bargain and that the wealth he had accumulated was not worth the personal family life he had squandered away. During the years that he was rebuilding his fortune, he also worked to rebuild his relationships with his family members. He also came to appreciate wealth as a blessing. He came to understand that he had deluded himself into thinking that he alone controlled his destiny. Now he understood that no one is in control of his own destiny and that our successes are blessings that we must appreciate.
These are lessons that he learned during this difficult, prolonged period of rebuilding. He didn’t learn them during the first year of his long journey or even the second. He didn’t fully master these lessons and embrace them until he had endured many years of struggle. But with time he did master these lessons and he changed his life and his values. When finally he did receive the answer he sought from Hashem he had a profound sense of appreciation and he had created a strong loving family. My friend told me that he succeeded transforming himself and his values through the experience of losing the wealth that he had believed was the most important aspect of his life.
My friend ended his account with a final observation. If Hashem had answered his prayers one day earlier, he would not have truly learned and embraced these lessons. He would have been drawn back into his old life, habits, and attitudes.
My friend’s account beautifully illustrates Rav Soloveitchik’s insight. We pray for many things. We believe that we need these things. We must have them. But we ask Hashem to consider our petitions with mercy. We ask that in His wisdom He grant those requests that will enrich our lives but not those that are only our illusions. We ask that He hearken to all of our prayers but that He respond to our petitions with discretion and mercy.
4. Sometimes “No” is a compassionate answer
Implicit in Rav Soloveitchik’s insight is an important observation regarding human nature. We tend to judge whether Hashem hears us by whether we receive a positive response. A child asks a parent for a new cell phone or laptop and the parent responds that the child’s old phone or computer is fine. It’s a natural response for a child to angrily conclude that his or her parent is not listening or – even worse – is just ignoring the request. It is very difficult for the child to consider that his or her parent may have other – even very valid – reasons for not agreeing to the request. Adults also are not immune from this behavior. This attitude can easily undermine our relationship with Hashem. If this attitude dominates our thinking, then every unanswered prayer is evidence of Hashem’s rejection of us and His abandonment of us.
For Hashem will not discard His nation and His portion He will not abandon. (Sefer Tehellim 94:14)
5. Hashem is always in our midst and awaits our call
Sforno explains the above passages based upon this behavior. He explains that Hashem tells Moshe that when the nation abandons Hashem, He will allow Bnai Yisrael’s enemies to oppress them. The nation will suffer terribly at the hands of its oppressors. Hashem tells Moshe that the nation will not turn to Hashem. Instead, the people will look upon their suffering as evidence of Hashem’s abandonment of His people. They will declare that He is no longer among them. In their anger at this rejection they will refuse to turn to Hashem and will instead intensify their rejection of Hashem. Hashem tells Moshe that He will never abandon His people. Even in our darkest hour He remains in our midst. We need only to call to Him and He will respond. He is hiding. He is suppressing His compassion. But He will never forsake His people!
According to Sforno, the passages are not describing a sequence of events. They describe the people’s response and interpretation to their suffering. They will declare, “Hashem is not in our midst.” The passages then explain that this angry interpretation of Hashem’s silence is not correct. He will never abandon His people, He remains in their midst. He has hidden Himself. He has subdued His compassion as He awaits their return to Him.
May Hashem hearken to our prayers the entire year and during the approaching Yamim Nora’im and may He respond with discretion and mercy.
1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:2-3.
2. Rabbaynu Chaim ibn Atar, Commentary Ohr HaChayim on Sefer Devarim 31:18.
3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 31:17.