Friday, September 18, 2015
A God who hides: Vayelech and Yom Kippur
“Don’t hide from me” pleads Hasidic singer Avraham Fried. The idea of God hiding has been used in response to the question “Where was God during the Holocaust?” and to explain the persecution of “God’s treasured people”. I am curious about how a people with a terrible history of suffering interprets the symbolism of a God with a “hidden face”.
In our Torah reading this week (Vayelech), we encounter the idea of God hiding as punishment for a disloyal people. “My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us? And I will hide, [yes] I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other gods”.1
One Jewish response to “God hiding” that resonates for me is deep sadness. “Rabbi Johanan, when he came to the [following] verse, wept: And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them. A slave whose Master brings many evils and troubles upon him, is there any remedy for him?!”2 Some have argued that God didn’t cause the Holocaust, or the terrible violence of our own time, that man instead is to blame. I agree that humans must certainly be held to account, but letting God off the hook in this way does not work for me. My orientation to God is as the source of sustenance and protection. God must have been present at Auschwitz and could thus arguably appear to be complicit in the evil deeds of the Nazis. The response to suffering I find most useful is in the statement that “it is not in our hands to grasp [the reasons for] the tranquillity of the wicked nor the ordeals of the righteous”.3
One approach to the verse about the slave seems to be focused on making sense of the words, but also sheds some light on the reality they describe. “What is the meaning of ‘evils and troubles’? — Rab said: Evils which become antagonists to each other, as for instance the [bites of] a wasp and a scorpion”. This is a classic catch 22: the treatment of one kind of bite is to wash it with cold water and that bite is made worse by hot water, while the reverse is true with the other.4 A variation of this bind is seen when “Jews in exile would be mistreated by a non-Jewish person. If the Jew complained it increased the hatred of the perpetrator and would be spread to others, but if he is silent then the perpetrator will become accustomed to doing this in this way”.5 Australian Muslims, like American Blacks, sometimes find themselves in a similar bind. If they complain they are the “Angry Muslim”, like the “Angry Black Man”; if they are silent the problems persist.
The attraction of the idea of God hiding, in some interpretations, is that one can continue to believe in benign divine providence and engagement with the Jews despite intensely cruel oppression. One such approach, implausible to me, is that God’s hiding his face is “in a way of affection” like a father of a misbehaving child who instructs the child’s teacher to beat him but cannot bear to look himself, and turns away, because of his feeling for the child.6 This anthropomorphism comforts persecuted believers by telling them that although they may feel abandoned by God, God still cares. In fact He cares so much that it is as if he is looking away because he cannot bear to witness their pain.
One of the themes of Christian antisemitism was the idea that God had rejected the Jews. Although God hiding his face from the Jews could be understood as supporting that idea, commentators argue that the opposite is true: “it is not as they [the Jews] think, that I [God] am not among them [which explains their suffering] but indeed in every place that they will be, my presence will be found there but I will hide my face from helping them”.7 Other commentators go as far as condemning the Jews for their belief that God had abandoned them, declaring that this lack of faith in God’s continuing providence is the very sin that leads to God redoubling his determination to hide from them.8
Sitting in the comfort of 21st Century Australia it is hard to imagine the hell experienced by our people in other times and places, or that being endured by members of many other nations and faiths today. As I prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, for me also a day for reconciliation with God, I wonder about this punitive cruel God. One way of explaining the Kol Nidrei prayer, which calls for the absolving of vows, is that God Himself is asking to be absolved from the system of rewards, punishments and “hiding” that he promised in the Torah. Yes, there needs to be accountability by the Jews for compliance with God's laws but punishment is not the only option available to God for holding us to account. The approach of restorative justice uses shame and awareness of the harm itself as more potent alternatives to punishment.9
Perhaps God hides because of an estrangement between humans and God, and our failure to live up to the ideals and principles that God calls us to live by. I am up for this kind of reconciliation.
1. Deuteronomy 31:17-18
2. Talmud Chagiga 5a
3. Pirkey Avot, (Ethics of the fathers) 4:11
5. Bchor Shor, Meam Loez, p. 1247, Vagshal edition
6. Bchor Shor, Chizkuni, Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot,
8. R.A Hacohen, cited in Meam Loez, p. 1272, Vagshal editiontheme is discussed in Meam Loez, p. 1248, Vagshal edition
9. This theme is discussed in Meam Loez, p. 1248, Vagshal edition