It’s a scary familiar term – one that we invoke to assess the unexplainable and capture the unimaginable. The phrase? Hester Panim and it means that God hides His face from us. Rather than penetrate this notion, let us simply observe from whence it emerges. Perhaps it will offer us a window into the notion from which we still suffer. Hashem paints for Moshe the bleak picture of a post-Moshe Jewish people: [Devarim, 31:16-18]
You are about to die, and this people will arise and stray after the gods of the stranger [people] of the land that they are going there among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.
And I will wax angry at them on that day and I will forsake them and I shall conceal My face from them and .. and many evils and troubles will happen to them;
Bnei Yisrael introspects:
and they will say on that day, “Look! Because my G-d is not within me did these evils happen to me.”
Thus far we understand the cause and effect. Now, we begin to wonder about Hashem’s response:
And I will surely conceal My face on that day because of all the wickedness that they did, because they turned to other gods.
It appears that Hashem responds to Bnei Yisrael’s introspection with even further concealment. Why? Shouldn’t the Almighty respond to Bnei Yisrael’s movement by being open and accessible ala shuva elai v’ashuva eilechem?
It is not a complete confession as we found earlier “and they shall confess their sins” [Bamidbar 6] – but rather it is thought and regret, that they regret their breach and recognize their guilt .. and because they reflected such, God should have helped and saved them for they already denied the idolatry .. therefore it says that for the great evil they committed to rely upon the idolatry, He will again hide His face not like the first time where He hid His mercy and they found terrible troubles, rather they will be hidden from the face of redemption and they will stand with the promise of God’s mercy that He will never reject or repulse them even in enemy lands. This will be until they add to their regret where they have reached the level of complete confession
An incomplete confession effects a lessening of the Divine concealment. More peeks of the Divine countenance emerge – such that one can further reflect upon His Providential nature. Secure in the knowledge of basking in the Divine promise of eternity, the nation engages in a complete Teshuva and a full confession.
Now, Reb Bunim of Pshischa
It is because Hashem has left us that we are engulfed in such troubles
Our verse is not [as we originally thought] an introspective one. Bnei Yisrael is finger-wagging upwards. Hashem – YOU left US! You moved away and that’s why these tragedies have befallen us.
An elderly couple returns to their hometown for a drive down memory lane. Their classic town car has a front bench. She is by the window and he is driving. At each sight – they find personal landmarks. Here we met, .. at this hotel, we got married .. we bought our first set of furniture from this thrift shop .. our baby’s first steps on this block.. the schools, the stores, the friendships. They are caught in the past. At one point, the wife wistfully turns to her husband. “Don’t you remember that we used to be so close and so in love that when we would drive we would sit right next to each other. What has happened to us my dear?” The husband turns to his wife and calmly responds. “My love, I have always been the one behind the driver’s wheel.”
In truth, Hashem’s apparent distance stems from our movement – away. Unreflective Bnei Yisrael however are bitter – and seeking scapegoats. Playing the blame game of course creates a further distancing from the Almighty. Hence, the Divine reaction of further concealment.
Finally, a remarkable Seforno
Because He has removed his Shechina from our presence did this occur to us. When they think thus, they will not turn to pray and do teshuva. .. I will hide Myself, not as they think for wherever they shall be I go with with them as the Rabbis teach wherever they are exiled the Shechina is with them.
Despair. Our verse portrays a description – not a prescription. Hashem no longer wants a shaychus, a relationship with me. Therefore he has moved away. It is that yeiush which stops any movement towards teshuva.
A moving gemara portrays Rabbi Meir walking with Acheir, the sage Elisha Ben Abuyah who lost his faith towards the end of his life. It is Shabbos. Acheir is riding his horse and Rabbi Meir, an expert in extracting the good stuff from Acheir, is engaged in conversation with his former Rebbe. As they walking outside the city, Acheir informs Rabbi Meir that he must return, lest he violate the techum, the 2000 cubit boundary that one may not exceed outside the city. Rabbi Meir seizes the opportunity:[Chagiga 16b]
He said to him: Meir, turn backwards, for I have already measured by means of my horse’s hoofs up to this point the legal limit of the Sabbath. He answered him: Return yourself as well. He said to him: And have I not already answered thee what I have heard from behind the Divine curtain? (That God says “return, my wayward children” [Yirmiyahu, 3:14] – everyone except for Acheir).
A classic story of Elazar ben Dordaya – the man whose immorality was legend, offers a wondrous contrast. A moving Talmudic account [Avodah Zarah 17]:
It was said of Elazar ben Dordaya who left out not one prostitute. He was once informed that there was a prostitute in one of the sea countries, who received a pocketful of dinars in reward, and he took this amount and passed seven rivers until he reached her. As he was with her, she blew forth breath1 and said: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordia never be received in repentance.
He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains and exclaimed: O, ye hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me! They replied: How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed! So he exclaimed: Heaven and earth, plead ye for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for thee? .. Sun and moon, plead ye for mercy for me! .. stars and constellations, plead ye for mercy for me! Said they: How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, And all the hosts of heaven shall moulder away. Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bas kol was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’
Elazar Ben Dordaya and Acheir crisscross. One ends up where the other began. At what point do we reach their nexus? They both confront a moment – their moment of truth. It is crisis time. They have sunk so low. Elazar Ben Dordaya responds to a message that emerges from the lowest of the low, the most unholy of sources, while Acheir, who is still able to pierce the heavens, rejects the implicit message of relationship found in the tough message of the bas kol.
Elazar ben Dordaya becomes the classic symbol of it’s never too late and the hope springs eternal message of teshuva while Acheir is forever seared in Jewish consciousness as the great tragic figure. Why? Because Acheir gave up.
As we walk into Yom Kippur, let us internalize and teach whoever we can that Hashem is always waiting for us. We can and shall never give up!
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1 This is a Soncino translation, but yafiach probably means something else.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.