It describes the last preparations prior to the passing of the nation’s leader, Moses, and the passing of the torch to his student, Yehoshua ben Nun, who would later lead the nation to settling the Holy Land. G-d calls to Moses and Yehoshua to enter Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Congregation), the Mishkan, and there He conveys to Moses a gloomy forecast of what the future holds for the Jewish nation in the coming years – a forecast that came true in its entirety. According to this forecast, the Jewish nation will worship other deities and breach its covenant with G-d. In response, G-d will conceal His face from His people:
And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them… and many evils and troubles will befall them; and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is no longer in my midst, that these evils have befallen me?’ And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed…
(Deuteronomy 31, 17)
These verses do not describe a punishment that the Jewish nation will receive for leaving the covenant, but that G-d will hide His face, and this “hastarat panim” – the concealment of G-d’s face – will be what causes the troubles that afflict the Jews. Why is the punishment described as “hastarat panim?” And what is the meaning of this “hastarat panim?”
The term “hastarat panim” is fundamental in Jewish religious philosophy. When we believe in one G-d, and believe He has a relationship with His creations, we actually believe that G-d is entirely good. We cannot accept evil and suffering from G-d, even if the person deserves the suffering. Indeed, these verses describe the punishment that happens when G-d hides His face and temporarily looks away, allowing for chance to afflict the person being punished.
This sense, that there is no evil that stems from G-d but only because He conceals His face, has accompanied the Jewish people throughout the most difficult hardships: the destruction of the Temple and the terrible exile that followed; the Crusades; the Spanish Inquisition; the Holocaust, etc.
But sometimes, for the faithful, this experience of G-d hiding His face and not being present in the suffering he is enduring, is unbearable. Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz (1914 – 1997) was a Holocaust survivor who worked to save thousands of Jews from bring sent to extermination camps. At the end of his life, he wrote a book called Binat Nevonim where he describes the Holocaust from the perspective of a believing Jew. He writes as follows:
…Though we knew this was all from G-d…despite this, in our hearts, we could not accept this. We could accept G-d’s decree, but we could not make peace with the feeling… that He hid His face from us, and that He does not want to know what’s happening to us; As though after He handed us over to our enemies, He turned His back to us, without looking at what these enemies are doing to us. Our prayers were not accepted, and all our cries were not answered. This feeling of being cast away, we just could not overcome it… We were frightened to our bones when we read in the Torah, ‘And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them…’
(Binat Nevonim, pages 131-133)
He found a solution to this difficult experience in the words of the Talmud:
“And I will hide my face in that day…”, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Even though I hid my face from them…His hand is outstretched over us, as it is stated: “And I have covered you in the shadow of my hand” (Isaiah 51:16).
(Chagiga 5, 2)
When a person doesn’t want someone else to see him, he has two options: to cover his own face and turn his head away, or to extend his hand out to cover the other’s face so he won’t be able to see him. When we read that G-d might hide His face, we imagine it like a person turning away and ignoring what he sees, or covering his own face with his hand. But the sages of the Talmud say, based on what is written in the book of Isaiah, that “hester panim” should be compared to a person covering his friend’s face so the friend can’t see him, even though he is still present and can totally see his friend. If so, when someone is suffering, it is not that G-d is hidden or has disappeared. He is completely present, but temporarily, the person cannot experience His good and compassionate presence.
We hope for a good year, one in which our lives are full of G-d’s beneficent presence; a year devoid of plagues and wars but full of peace and joy. With that, we still need to remember that even during the times of suffering and sorrow we have endured, G-d is with us, even if we cannot sense it; as was written by Rabbi Nachman of Breslev:
Even during a concealment within a concealment, Hashem, may He be blessed, is certainly there. Behind all the difficult, confusing, challenging things that stand before you (Hashem says:)— I stand.
(Likutei Moharan 56, 3)