Finding God and Ourselves Anew

Ha'azinu Shabbat Shuvah | Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 3, 2013 / 5773 | Holidays

During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we devote ourselves to the process of repentance, attempting to tip the balance in our favor as we approach the Day of Atonement. The Sabbath in between the two holidays is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return; and Shabbat Shuvah is considered an auspicious time to reflect on this sacred endeavor. It would seem that the Torah reading this week reinforces this notion, reminding us of earlier, harmonious days in our relationship with God (Deut. 32:7), and of days marred by our collective wayward behavior (32:15–16). We, indeed, seek a closer, more intimate relationship with God and our fellow humans, and so hope that “our days will be renewed as of old.”

About halfway through Moses’s poem of Parashat Ha’azinu, he describes God’s response to Israelite disloyalty:

The Lord saw and was vexed and spurned His sons and daughters. God said, “I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end. For they are a treacherous breed, children with no loyalty in them.” (Deut. 32:19–20)

How are we to understand the expression about hiding the Divine Face?

Nahmanides (Ramban) clarifies two very important and seemingly contradictory points. First, when God makes this threat, Ramban explains that God says it either to Himself or to the ministering angels—not to the People. That is to say, God knows well that the divine anger and threat should not preclude the process of teshuvah (repentance) and repair of relationships. Verbalizing such a destructive message directly to the People will lead to a sense of futility. Second, Nahmanides goes on to explain that the meaning of this notion of “hiding” is that the People will go out to seek God, but ultimately fail in their search. In this instance, God’s quality of justice and desire for vengeance seems to overwhelm God’s desire for mercy.

Every year, we are given the gift of finding God anew. And while our previous track record may discourage God from opening the door, it should not deflate us and our attempts to open the door to repentance. Even when it seems we have drifted quite a distance from our divine source, the possibility of returning is within reach. God may continue to hide the divine presence, but we need to be firm in “knocking harder.” Our persistence will awaken God’s quality of mercy. May our teshuvah, tzedakah (charity), and tefillah (prayer) all diminish the severity of the decree and lead to a revealing of the Divine Countenance.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.