Faith

This Week's Torah Portion: The Face of G-d (Part 49)

In this Sept. 23, 2010 photo, a likeness of cartoon character Peter Griffin, from the Fox animated program the "Family Guy" stands in the Rhode Island Visitor's Center, in Pawtucket, R.I. Fans of the show, based in the fictional Rhode Island town of Quahog, can hit the road on a bus tour highlighting a dozen sites in the state that have served as inspiration. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.

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Dëvar Torah — Parashath VaYélech (Deuteronomy XXXI, 1-30)

The following verse from our parasha refers to the concept of hestér panim, or “hiding of the [Divine] face” — a concept often cited yet little understood. What, exactly, are the ramifications of hestér panim? What brings it about, and what corrects it to bring about the reverse, he’arath panim — “illumination of the face”?

First, the verse:

And I shall hide My face [hastér astir panai] on that day because of all the evil which he [referring to the phrase ha‘am haze, “this people,” in XXXI, 16] has done, for he has turned to other gods. (XXXI, 18)

As with so many things, this verse has both a personal, subjective level and a national, objective, statistical level (for example, read my comments on Parashath Va’Ethchannan concerning the national aspect of hestér panim). Further, the second level depends upon the first, since the nation is the sum total of the individuals who make it up. Therefore, the national consequences are “statistical” in nature, and cannot be used to determine the status of an individual member of the nation. Nonetheless, as a member of the nation, each individual — to some extent regardless of his personal status — shares the general fate of the nation.

In this parasha we will focus on the individual aspect of hestér panim, relying on a metaphorical interpretation of the singular pronoun in our verse.

Note the double verb hastér astir in the verse before us. The Chassidic commentaries explain this as signifying that the very fact of the hestér panim is itself hidden from the world. They illustrate this subtle concept by means of a parable that originated with the Ba‘al Shém Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement within Judaism.

In brief, the story is told of a king who put up many apparent obstacles and barriers between his palace and his people as a means of testing who among them would be sufficiently perceptive and persistent to penetrate the camouflage, come to the palace, and reap his reward. Some are repelled immediately by the formidable “obstacles” and never even start. Some begin, and even penetrate some of the obstacles, only to be distracted or discouraged such that they never complete the project and reach the goal. Others persist and do reach the goal, bask in the presence of the king, and get richly rewarded for their enterprise.

The key to the whole effort is the Ba‘al Shém Tov’s comment that awareness of the hestér, the “hiding,” means that there is no hestér at all. What did he mean by this?

There are two seemingly contradictory Talmudic passages that shed light on this question. The first is found in Bërachoth 35b:

From the day the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has separated Israel from their Father Who is in Heaven, as it is said (Ezekiel IV.3): “And you, take for yourself a screen of iron and you will place it as a wall of iron between you and the city.”

However, in Pësachim 85b we find the following:

Not even a partition of iron separates Israel from their Father in Heaven.

How are we to reconcile these two?

The answer would seem to lie in the parable cited above. The “wall” or “partition” is only apparent, in our contemporary parlance, as a “virtual” wall. The discerning can penetrate it to reach the inner, ultimate reality. What is more, the “wall,” as the quotation from Ezekiel and the verse from our parasha imply, is of our own making.

Our evil actions and thoughts have placed it there; but, in reality, if we but make the effort, we can penetrate the mirage. We can recognize that its substance is an illusion, that it is not there at all. The reality of the hestér is itself nistar, “concealed.”

The Tiqqubei Zohar (71b) sheds more light on this concept:

“I, Ha-Shem, have not changed” (Malachi III, 6), and He has not changed and not hidden Himself from Man, save regarding the futility; the Holy One, Blessed is He, has changed and hidden Himself from them, as it is written (Deuteronomy XXXII, 20): “I shall hide My face from them, I shall see what their end will be;” and why? Because “they are a generation of revolutions, sons who lack upbringing.” (ibid.)

For certainly the Holy One, Blessed is He and His Presence have not changed one thing from another, but concerning others He has changed and hidden Himself in several garments and several covers and several shells.

What we can glean from this is that the hestér is only apparent to sinners.

The tzaddiq who is zakkau — innocent of all wrongdoing — is unaware of any distance, any hestér at all. This is brought home by a passage from the Zohar (II, 57a):

“For you come to see My face” (in the Temple; Isaiah I, 12); one would expect “for you come to be seen”. What does “to see My face” mean? All those faces of the King are buried in the depths behind darkness, and all those who know how to unify the holy Name properly break through those walls of darkness, and the face of the King becomes visible and shines on everything; and when it is visible and shining, everything above and below is blessed. Similar blessings are found in all worlds, and so it is written, “to see MY face.”

From this we see that one has to break through the “walls of darkness,” the virtual “partitions of iron,” and those who are capable of doing this are “those who know how to unify the holy Name properly.” Those who understand that all the “walls of darkness” are only mirages, and therefore proceed intrepidly to break through and unify His holy Name through careful performance of His commandments.

It is this intent which lies behind the Chassidic custom of declaring the following before reciting a relevant blessing and performing a mitzvah:

For the sake of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and His presence, with fear and love, I am ready and prepared to perform [this mitzvah].

The passage from the Zohar adds the information that these “pioneers” who perform the mitzvoth with such an intention perform a service for the rest of us. They make possible the dissipation of the hestér not only in the lower world, where we reside, but even in the upper worlds, inhabited by the chayyoth haqodesh — the “holy beings” who have no yétzer hara’, no physical nature, and hence are not subject to our struggle.

This provides us with a hint of the tremendous, ultimate importance of the enterprise in which we are engaged on Earth. For we can bring about the nullification of the hestér, and awaken in its place the he’arath panim.

A bit of reflection will reveal that, just as our exile has been caused by hestér panim (as our parasha makes clear; cf. XXXI, 17), so also must our redemption come about through he’arath panim. Support for this thesis can be found throughout Tanach.

King David prayed:

Illuminate Your face and we shall be saved (Psalms LXXX, 20).

Similarly, Daniel begged:

And cause Your face to illuminate Your ruined Temple (Daniel IX, 17).

The Prophet Ezekiel spoke of the end of our present exile:

And the nations will know that because of their sins was the house of Israel exiled, because they betrayed Me; and I hid My face from them, and I gave them into the hand of their tormentors. … And I shall not hide My face from them any more, for I have poured out My spirit upon the house of Israel. (Exekiel XXXIX, 23-29)

How can we bring about that glorious day?

The first of the “pioneers” of whom we speak supra was Moshe, who demonstrated what was necessary at Mt. Sinai:

 And Moshe approached the fog where G-d was (Exodus XX, 18).

Rashi ad loc. comments:

“Approached the fog” within the three partitions of darkness, cloud, and fog, as it is said (Deuteronomy IV, 11) “And the mountain burned with fire up to the heart of Heaven, darkness, and fog.”

The great 14th century Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, known as the Ba‘al haTurim, notes that the gimatriya, or numerical value, of the word ha’arafél (“the fog”) is 385, the same as that of the word Shëchina, which we have been translating as “Divine Presence.” Though it seemed as though Israel was confronted by a wall of impenetrable darkness, it was there that G-d was. The partitions were, and are, illusions, mirages, camouflage.

But someone must be the first to confront the mirage, to walk through it, to demonstrate its insubstantiality. Those pioneers are our great men — “those who know how to unify the holy Name properly,” as the Zohar calls them. By following their lead, walking fearlessly through the mirages in their wake, we can arrive at the King’s palace and hasten the final redemption.