Teshuvah: Seeking the Hidden Face of God

Ha'azinu Shabbat Shuvah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 26, 2014 / 5774 | Holidays Prayer

This coming Shabbat, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return.” 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 Shabbat in between 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 (Deut. 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” (Lam. 5:21).

About halfway through Moses’s poem of Parashat Ha’azinu, he describes God’s response to Israelite disloyalty. God is portrayed as “hiding the Divine face”: “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 this expression?

Ramban (Moses Nahmanides) writes, “God said, ‘I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end . . . ’ that is, God said in His heart, or to the angels. And this expression of hiding God’s countenance means that when they will seek Me, they will not find Me.” For Ramban, there are 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 relationship. Verbalizing such a destructive message directly to the people would 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 teshuvahtzedakah (charity), and tefillah (prayer) both 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.