Love in Hiding

Vayeilekh By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Sep 11, 2015 / 5776 | Main Commentary

When I prepared to chant Parashat Vayeilekh at my Bar Mitzvah, I don’t think I paid much attention to the theological import of the announcement that God would “hide My countenance” from the children of Israel. Nor is it likely that I felt the pathos of Moses giving up the mantle of leadership, on the far side of the Jordan, as his life’s journey came to an end. I suspect I identified a bit with Joshua, who (like me, in a way), was about to begin a new chapter of his life, and I like to think that I appreciated the stirring rhetoric of the chapters that I practiced over and over in preparation for the big day. Half a century later in life, the Book of Deuteronomy means absolutely everything to me, particularly the sections that open and close the book. The memories of my Bar Mitzvah have long since faded, but Moses’ words to the Children of Israel guide and challenge me every day.

That is not to say that I understand all of them. Two facts about this week’s portion make such understanding particularly difficult. First, as Jeffrey Tigay (a graduate of JTS’s Rabbinical School) explains, this parashah, more than any other, “is characterized by doublets, inconsistencies, interruptions, and variations in vocabulary and concepts that scholars take as evidence of different literary sources.” (JPS Commentary, 502). The pieces that comprise Vayeilekh do not hang together neatly. Before and after seem confused. We do not always know, as readers, exactly where we (or the action) stand.

Second—appropriately for a portion set at the moment when the Israelites are about to cross the river Jordan to a life that they and the world have never known, and Moses is about to make the crossing from life to whatever lies beyond life (the Torah is utterly silent on the point)—the theological complexities raised are truly immense. Consider the vexing notion that God will “abandon [Israel] and hide My countenance from them” (31:17), a promise repeated in the very next verse, where the key word (hiding) is itself repeated: “I will surely hide [or: “I will keep My countenance hidden”] on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.”

Commentators throughout the ages have had a lot to say about these verses, and the concept or image of God’s hidden countenance has taken on added importance in our generation, having been invoked by a number of theologians struggling to make sense of (or in the face of) the Holocaust. Rather than abandon belief that God has the will and consciousness needed to act in history; or blame God for causing or allowing the evils perpetrated by the Nazis to occur; or find ways to justify God’s alleged action or inaction during those years—the theologians throw up their hands at the question of “where God was” while the awful work of the death camps proceeded. “Hiding of the Countenance” is a sort of explanation that asserts no explanation is possible. It is a way of saying: “we do not know. We have no answers. Why—despite the existence of a God who cares about the world and is merciful—do natural disasters wipe out entire villages? Why does cancer strike innocent children? Why do human beings created in God’s image murder other creatures of God by the millions? Why does God do nothing to stop them? We don’t know. We lack answers. But we will not declare that God never acts, never saves, never speaks, never hears our cries for help. Instead we talk about the “hiding of the Countenance”—and transmit a divine promise that, if we act as we should, the hiding will come to an end.

I admire the theological humility of this approach. It reinforces Deuteronomy’s declaration two chapters earlier (29:28) that “the hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but revealed things are [given] to us and our children ever to do all the words of this Torah.” These words befit the humility of a prophet who, earlier in his career, asked to see God’s glory and was told that he could not. A human being cannot see God’s face and live, the Torah declares. Moses was granted the gift of God’s presence and guidance in his life and that of his community. So are we. Indeed, Moses was commanded to instruct Aaron and his sons to bless the people Israel with the prayer that God would “cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you”—the very opposite of the hiding that, Moses learns in this week’s parashah, will take place after he is gone and the Israelites reject his teaching. I hope that he recalled God’s promise, reported earlier in Deuteronomy (4:29), that Israel’s punishment would not be permanent. The people would return to God at some point, and God to them. Israelite faces would once again shine with reflected light from the divine countenance and one another.

That is the second aspect of the “hidden countenance” notion that I treasure: rather than articulate abstract theology, it testifies to the power of relationship. Moses is taking his leave from the Children of Israel in these chapters. He is so concerned that they listen well to his words (“Hear, O Israel”) because they will soon lose the sound of his voice forever. He will be present for them, and he will be absent, only as a deceased parent or sibling or friend is present and absent. The Israelites will recite the words of this very speech every seventh year (31:10-12). No doubt, they will think and dream of Moses regularly, as we remember our deceased parents and listen to recordings of them on our answering machines, or play videos that bring memories to life. God too is announcing a leave-taking in this parashah, the consequences of Israelite worship of other gods. The Rabbis compared the situation to a king who regrettably banishes a child from his presence for a time—and lets the child know that he is doing it out of love and will one day welcome the child back to the palace. God is not breaking off the relationship with Israel forever but warning in advance that it will be disrupted for a time—and then repaired. The lover will be absent but the love will continue. So long as the hiding continues, so should the seeking.

One tries in vain to make good logical—or theological—sense of the matter. It does not satisfactorily “explain” any bad things that happen to innocent people in the presence of a good God who cares about humanity. But the notion of the hidden face resonates powerfully with emotional truth. It speaks to the absence of someone we love, the fear that they will stop loving us, and the comforting promise that they will be there even when we cannot reach them, and will never entirely leave us, even after they are gone.

The Baal Shem Tov beautifully addressed that dimension when he distinguished in his commentary (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Vayeilekh #4) between the hiding of the divine countenance—announced the first time God uses the phrase in our parashah—and the hiding of the hiding, which the Besht believes is the import of the second mention of it, in v.18. I read his teaching this way: It is bad enough when someone we love leaves us, hides from us, causes us to seek long years without finding. But that loss is bearable, because we know the one we love is there, to be found. (Buber for that reason spoke of the “eclipse of God.” The sun or moon is blocked for a time. But we know it is there, and will return.) Should we doubt either of those things, however; should we give up on the lover’s existence, and so on their love for us—that would be truly unbearable. The Children of Israel are warned by God that this too will overtake them for a time, in the depths of their alienation from God. But it will be temporary, and they can carry God’s words in their hearts, they can fill public and private life with God’s commandments, and Moses’ words too will be ringing in their ears. Our ears. We can bear the hiding of the Countenance for a time, and come out the other end in renewed relationship.

That is the hope with which we approach Yom Kippur and the New Year about to begin. The rabbis have us read Vayeileikh on Shabbat Shuvah for a reason, convinced that we will return—and that God will never leave us.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).