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In Hiding

Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

After the litany of curses articulated in Parashat Ki Tavo, it is hard to believe that any remain, yet one more is mentioned repeatedly in Parashat Vayelech:

Then my anger shall be kindled against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say on that day, ‘Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face on that day because of all the evils which they shall have done, by turning to other gods.

The price to be paid for our abandonment of God is that He will abandon us; He will “hide his face” from us. This situation is known as hester panim – literally a “hiding of the face.” Commentaries have various suggestions as to the specifics of this curse, but reading this passage in its larger context may provide the most straightforward explanation.

Prior to this dire prediction, Moshe speaks of his own imminent death, and his replacement by Yehoshua (31:1-8). In the verses immediately following the curse, Yehoshua’s succession is once again the topic, and he is encouraged to “be strong” (31:23). Sandwiched between these two sections are the verses that discuss hester panim.

Moshe’s death is not merely the passing of an incomparable political and religious leader; Moshe is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and, by definition, whoever replaces him will pale in comparison. Although Yehoshua is blessed with great strength and great capabilities, his prophetic ability will never measure up to that of Moshe. This problem is addressed between the lines that precede and follow the curse of hester panim: How will the nation survive without Moshe’s unparalleled abilities? Apparently, they must take part of the responsibility that Moshe has borne upon themselves; Yehoshua alone cannot fill Moshe’s shoes.

This context gives new meaning to the concept of the “hidden face:” Moshe is told there will be times when the Jewish People will so blatantly and completely ignore the word of God, that God will simply stop speaking to us. If we refuse to receive God’s communication, through the words of the Torah and the words of the prophets, God will cease to engage in this one-sided communication. This is the meaning of the Aramaic translation rendered by Onkelos (and Pseudo Yonatan): “I will remove my Shechina from them.” While this may be understood as a general statement that the “spirit” of God will be banished from the camp when the Jewish People sin, the Talmud suggests a more specific meaning:

‘And I will hide My face on that day.’ Rava said: Although I hide My face from them, I shall speak to them in a dream. (Talmud Bavli Hagiga 5b)

Hester panim is clearly related to prophecy; even when the lines of communication are cut, even when prophecy is withheld, God will continue to communicate with us, albeit in a less straightforward, less accessible and more subtle manner –through dreams.

Hester panim is the subject of a seemingly-unrelated Talmudic discussion, a discussion that at first glance seems to be based on a play on words and nothing more:

Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? [In the verse,] ‘And I will surely hide [astir] my face.’ (Talmud Bavli Hullin 139b)

The connection of Esther to this passage, however, is anything but superficial or coincidental: The verses in this parashah describe a time of estrangement, a time when the Jewish People abandon God, and as a result, find themselves in exile. God, we are warned, will “hide his face.” He will decline to communicate; prophecy will cease. This is precisely the backstory of the Book of Esther: Uniquely among the biblical books, the Book of Esther is devoid of prophecy. The exiled Jews living in Shushan, devoid of sovereignty and bereft of prophecy, are at a loss. For the first time, there is no prophet to communicate God’s instructions, and they experience the terror of that darkness and silence that the Jewish People have come to know too well over the course of our exile.

So many of the biblical commentaries fail to draw the conclusion that a contextual reading of the verses offers; they search high and low for other possible meanings of hester panim, simply because prophecy has become a concept so foreign and so distant. Prophecy is outside of our mindset; we no longer mourn its loss, nor are we even aware of what great spiritual heights we might achieve with the guidance of a prophet who communicates God’s word to us. We no longer crave that intimacy with God, because we have forgotten that it is possible.

Perhaps this contextual reading may serve as a crucial lesson as we approach Yom Kippur: What spiritual gifts and accomplishments have we allowed to fall off of our “wish list”? What spiritual objectives have we allowed to fall so low on our to-do list that they have simply “fallen off the page?” Have we accustomed ourselves to settling for less-than optimal spirituality? Have we dulled our spiritual acuity through complacency, and as a result have we undersold ourselves? As we move forward, are we able to recalibrate, to strive for more, to contemplate what we have lost, and what we might hope to regain, in our spiritual lives? Hester panim, we are told, is a result of our own behavior; when we re-attune our ears and our hearts to God’s voice, He will surely resume the conversation.

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