The Chasidic tradition brings us the following story:
"One day Rabbi Ber was walking with some of his Chasidim when he saw a little girl standing behind a wall and crying. 'Why are you crying, little girl?' he asked. 'I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends,' said the little girl, 'and they didn't come to look for me.' Rabbi Ber sighed and said to his Chasidim: 'In that little girl's reply I heard the lament of the Shechinah: I will surely hide my face. I hid, as it were, and no one came to look for Me.' "1
In this week's very brief Parashat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30), sandwiched between the flowery discourse of Nitzavim and the farewell poem of Haazinu, Moses prepares to hand over leadership to Joshua. One would think a message of comfort and assurance would be in order. Yet, after Moses urges Joshua and the people to "be strong and resolute" (Deuteronomy 31:6-7), God informs him that they will fall into idolatry anyway, and threatens them with the ultimate Divine punishment: "Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods" (Deuteronomy 31:18). Here, the text repeats a form of the word "hidden" (hasteir astir), giving the idea special emphasis that has inspired commentary throughout the ages.
The Chasidic tale puts God's warning in an everyday scenario; the game of hide-and-seek only works if the seekers actively look for the hider. But let's keep in mind the other tacit rule of the game: The hider shouldn't hide so well that he or she cannot be found.
And so the Gerer tradition also brings us this message from its early 19th-century founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter (The Chiddushei HaRim):
"If one knows and feels that God is hiding His face, that is not so terrible, for then one longs for the Shechinah and the longing will eventually smash all barriers. Indeed, there is no greater repentance than that. The problem is where God's 'hiding' is concealed, and people don't even realize it. Then there is no seeking of God. That is the meaning of 'I will surely [haster histir] hide My face'—I will hide the fact that I am hiding from you, so that you won't even realize that God is lacking in your lives."2
The Gerer Rebbe is playing on the double use of the word to hide, which biblically adds the sense of surely and deepens the warning. He reads it as a concealment within a concealment—a hiding so deep that we are not even aware of God's Presence—or lack thereof.
That is, in fact, our dilemma on this Shabbat Shuvah.
We have left Rosh HaShanah services with at least a feeling that we have engaged ourselves in the work of t'shuvah and approach Yom Kippur with the hope, if not the expectation, of full restoration with God. Yet somber music and penitential prayer—emptying our bellies and beating our breasts—are just the first step in that process. Our Days of Awe are the warm-up for the "regular season," so to speak, which takes place all year round.
Our Shabbat Shuvah reading reinforces the necessity of this ongoing process. If our behavior has made us unaware of the Divine Presence for the past eleven months, God seems disinclined to make the first move. Rashi offers this explanation of verse 17, "I will . . . hide My countenance. As if I did not see their troubles." Abraham ibn Ezra comments on verse 18, "I will surely hide My face. If they call me I will not answer." 3 But why is God so obstinate? Maybe because it's we who both took to hiding first and must make the first move to seek.
"The metaphor here is a man who does not look and does not know what he is doing," adds ibn Ezra to his commentary. The Days of Awe are meant to be, literally, an eye-opening experience. We have to look. We have to look inside ourselves for the fractures and failings that have kept us hidden from God, but also hidden from ourselves. Among the introductory meditations in the Yom Kippur volume of Mishkan HaNefesh, a selection from Rabbi Jan Uhrbach reads, in part:
"We're trying to remove our protective armor—ego, self-deception, rationalization, external and internal 'makeup,' posturing—anything that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are. We're trying to experience both our vulnerability, and the true source of our strength. And perhaps most importantly, we're trying to get past our self-judgment and locate a place of gentleness and tenderness."4
Removing the armor is frightening and painful; after all, we put it on for a reason—to avoid getting hurt. Peeling it off it is like pulling off a scab from a fight or an injury, and baring the tender skin underneath. But that skin is, indeed, both our vulnerability and the true source of our strength. It is new, it is fresh. It has become neither hardened by old experiences, nor insensitive to new ones. It is truly a rebirth—one that can only begin with us.
The Gerer Rebbe taught that there is no greater repentance than that of one who has the courage to bare himself or herself in this way. Yes, it exposes us, with all our flaws and weaknesses. But it also opens us to God's redemptive, nurturing Presence. It is a cosmic restoration beautifully described in poetry by Judah Halevi:
"I have sought to come near You,
I have called to You with all my heart;
And when I went out towards You,
I found You coming towards me."5
1. Aharon Ya'akov Greenberg, comp., Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein, trans., Torah Gems Volume III, Bamidbar / Devarim (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1998), p. 316
2. Ibid., p. 316
3. Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators' Bible: Deuteronomy, The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015), p. 211
4. MIshkan HaNefesh, volume II (New York: CCAR Press, 2015), p. 5
5. "Lord, Where Shall I Find You" by Judah Halevi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, T. Carmi, ed. and trans., (New York: NY, T. Carmi, 1982), p. 338
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she was ordained in 1999.
Something felt different this year. Tragedy after tragedy opened our eyes to injustice in new, heartbreaking ways. It became more difficult for our communities to hide from the realities of social and economic inequality.
In the coming year, what changes will we seek?
I wonder: How can I be a part of bringing the sacred Presence of the Divine into situations that are sorely in need of holiness, justice, mercy, and love? Facing the myriad problems that plague our society can be overwhelming, exhausting, and paralyzing. The distance between opening my eyes and taking action seems vast. What should my first step be? Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra says: questions.
In Parashat Vayeilech, Moses tells the leaders to gather all of the people "that they may hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God . . ." (Deuteronomy 31:12). Ibn Ezra, curious about the transition from hearing to learning, comments: "When they hear, they will ask questions."1 The Children of Israel will not come to understand the word of God just by hearing it; rather, they will receive the primary evidence, and then, through curiosity and inquisitiveness, they will truly be able to make God's teaching manifest in their world.
Based on the evidence, I see that in the United States, we spend $80 billion each year on incarceration. I ask, why are we investing in prisons and jails when there are better ways to support families and keep them safe? I see that a Hispanic or Latina woman is paid 54% of what a non-Hispanic, white man would make. I ask, how can I better understand the systems of oppression that create this reality?
During these Days of Awe, I pray that we take time to notice the problems in our communities. I pray that we ask challenging questions to understand those problems. And I pray that we affect changes that can make God's love of all of humankind manifest in our world. Shanah Tovah!
Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 31:12, cited in Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators' Bible, the Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot: Deuteronomy. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), p. 209
Jason Fenster is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and serves as rabbinic intern at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, New York.
Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546-1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386?1,394;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250