As we approach the Day of Atonement, we look to this week's Torah portion for some inspiration. What might we expect to find in our search for motivation? The Ten Commandments? The final words of admonition from Moses to his people? Possibly even a promise of G-d's mercy on the Jewish nation?
As we approach the Day of Atonement, we look to this week's Torah portion for some inspiration. What might we expect to find in our search for motivation? The Ten Commandments? The final words of admonition from Moses to his people? Possibly even a promise of G-d's mercy on the Jewish nation? Yet, what we find in the small Torah portion of Vayelech is the passing of the mantle of leadership from Moses to Joshua, a single mitzvah to gather every seven years, and Hashem's warning the past and future leaders of the Jewish people that the people will go astray. To top it off, rather than offering assurances that He will always guide the Jewish people, G-d says, "Haster astir panai - I will hide My face" from the Jewish people, and the Jewish people will not be able to comprehend G-d throughout their punishments. Not quite the inspiration one would expect heading into the Day of Atonement.
The Ohr HaChaim, a renowned 18th century Torah scholar and Kabbalist, asks this and other questions on G-d "hiding His face" from the Jewish people so that they may bear full responsibility for their transgressions. In explaining why G-d uses the double language of both haster and astir (both from the root "hide"), the Ohr HaChaim states that G-d does not show His face when it is being defamed, such as in idolatry, which is considered as violating the entire Torah. What purpose does this serve?
Rather than allowing someone to be crushed when he realizes what he has done, G-d conceals Himself slightly, so that a person can handle his own guilt and repent on his own, instead of being shocked into shame by seeing G-d's glory in full. In addition, the mere fact that G-d hides His face is a comfort to someone undergoing troubles. The Ohr HaChaim asserts that Hashem is showing His people that there is justice in the world, and that just as they are punished for something wrong, they can be equally rewarded for doing the right thing.
Finally, the Ohr Hachaim concludes with the idea that every inconvenience in our lives is really a punishment from G-d in this world, so that we do not have to undergo more serious pain in this world or the World to Come. Now we can understand the message Hashem wants us to learn as we enter into this final push of repentance. Rather than despair because of what we have done, we must recognize every day that G-d gives us every chance to redeem ourselves, and metes out His justice in the easiest way possible for us. Just when we feel that G-d has hidden His face, and we are about to despair entirely, we are comforted by the fact that in reality, we can be as close to G-d as ever.
Steven Schwartzberg, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at Harvard University in Boston.
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