Here is a shi'ur I prepared for the study session of Shavu'ot tonight.
The references mentioned in the shi'ur can be found here.
Hester Panim – The Hidden God
Our generation, and countless generations before ours, has been living in a reality that is devoid of a direct and evident presence of God. Since the days of the Second Temple and the end of the age of Prophecy, we have no means of witnessing God first-hand (or even second-hand). This state of affairs leads to the fundamental difference between religious belief and scientific knowledge: we believe there is a God but we have no way to prove His existence. The rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, together with the inability to prove God’s existence due to His transcendental nature, has led many to abandon their beliefs. “What you see is what there is” is how people expect to lead their lives in the modern age.
A few weeks ago, a work colleague of mine (an Israeli currently living in the US), visited Japan on business and came to our place for Shabbat dinner. The conversation turned to religion and he asked me: “Is it possible that God was present at one time in history, created the world and all that, but then had enough and went away, leaving us to our fate?” He did not dispute the existence of God. He merely wanted me to concede that although there may be a God, He no longer intervenes world and is in essence a “Hidden God”. My friend was asking the age-old question posed to the prophet Yekhezkel – see ref. 1: Does God not see us? Has God abandoned the world?
This conversation prompted me to take a look into the concept of Hester Panim, the “Hidden Face” of God.
The Double Language of Hiding
God promised us in the Torah that there would come a time when He would hide His face from us – see ref. 2. Verse 17 in Devarim 31 says so explicitly: as a result of us turning to other gods, and as a result of God not being “among us”, God will hide His face. And Rashi explains – see ref. 3 – that this hiding means that God will make it “as if” He does not see his people’s plight. It is not that He does not see us or care about us; He only makes it look “as if” He does not.
The “hiding of the face” is repeated again in the next verse (18), using a double expression in Hebrew – haster astir – for which there is no ready equivalent in English (hence the English translation: “I will surely hide My face”). This duality in the language of the Torah was explained in different ways by different commentators:
§ Even Ezra – see ref. 4 – explains haster astir as a standard linguistic expression: this is the way the language is used, speaking in double terms. This explanation is resonant of R. Yishmael’s method in the Talmud: dibera Torah bilshon bnei-adam, the Torah speaks in the language of the people.
§ R. Bechayei – see ref. 5 – explains the two hidings as alluding to two different hidings. The first hiding was in the time of the exile to Babylon (after the destruction of the First Temple) and lasted only a short time (about 50 years). The second hiding is the current hiding, which started with the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.).
§ Ramban – see ref. 6 – also explains that there are two hidings. The first hiding was a result of the people abandoning God in favour of avoda zarah (idolatry), and this hiding was complete; God did not help and there was no hashgacha (Divine Providence). The second hiding was after the people repented and abandoned avoda zarah; the hiding continues but it is subtler, as now the ways of God are hidden but there is hashgacha. This is the state we are in today: God is looking after us, but he is hiding the ge’ulah itself, the redemption, waiting for us to repent in a full way and make full teshuvah.
§ R. Nachman from Braslev – see ref. 7 – also explains the double language of the Torah as alluding to there being two hidings. But these hidings are ensconced one inside the other, “a hiding within a hiding”. The first hiding is the hiding of God Himself. However there is a second hiding: the hiding of the first hiding itself, i.e. the fact that God is hidden is in itself a hidden fact. God had hidden His own hiding therefore man cannot even start looking for Him as man is not aware that there is a God that needs to be sought out. Modern man, according to this view, is devoid of any spiritual belief and God for him is not only hidden but practically non-existent.
Punishment or Test?
As we saw, the reason for God’s hiding of His face is given in the Torah: because the people have abandoned Him and turned to other gods. Yet we must ask ourselves whether this reason is enough for such a severe punishment. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud – see ref. 8 - mentions that the moment that God uttered these words – haster astir – was the single most difficult moment in the history of mankind. Rashi quotes this view when explaining a verse in Yeshayahu (adding a positive note about God promising, on that very same day, that the Torah will help the people of Israel out through the ages, despite this punishment of hiding – see ref. 9.)
Some commentators saw this hiding not as a punishment but as a test. God is hiding from us not in order to punish us for our sins, but in order to see whether we can be strong in our faith and continue to follow His ways even in a reality of hester panim and not only in a reality of full revelation and obvious hashgacha.
Indeed this idea is also expressed in the Torah – see ref. 10 – and expounded later in the Midrash – see ref. 11 - using a parable about a king that sits in his castle, behind a wall of steel, and challenges his slaves to climb over that wall and come to him. Those who make the effort and climb the wall prove that they love the king and fear him; those who don’t, prove the opposite. And the king loves the ones who are close to him. Just as God tested his people throughout the generations, so he is testing our generation with hester panim.
Hidden Providence and Purim
Megillat Ester tells the story of the plot to exterminate the Jews and how Ester succeeded to persuade the king to overturn Haman’s decree and spare the Jews. Perhaps the most astonishing fact about the megillah is that the name of God is not mentioned even once! The Sages have learnt from this fact that God is indeed in hester, but despite this hiding he is intervening in the world, performing miracles and helping his people survive. The Talmud brings R. Matana’s answer to “where was God in the story of Ester” – see ref. 12: he quotes the original verse from Devarim to find God in the similar words astir and Ester. But the idea linking the miracle of Purim and hester panim is much deeper than mere word play.
The Talmud tells us – see ref. 13 - that in the days of Ester, the Jews accepted the Torah the second time. The first time was obviously in Har Sinai, but at that time the Jews had “no choice” and God practically forced it upon them (some commentators point out that a people witnessing God first-hand and seeing Him in full glory as bnei Israel did, indeed had “no choice” but to accept His words at the absolute truth). The second time was in the days of Achashverosh, when the Jews re-accepted the Torah, but this time out of their own free will.
As the Sefat Emet explains – see ref. 14 – the people realised that God was saving them although the events that led to the happy ending were all “natural” events. They understood that natural events were the hester and that God’s hand was working behind the scenes. This deep understanding of Divine Providence manifesting itself in the natural course of history gave that particular generation the zechut (privilege) to seal the unification between the Jewish people and the Torah and make it complete.
The same idea is found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichot – see ref. 15. He explains that in the times of the Temple, the miracles were open and clear and God’s revelation was there for all to see. However in our times of hester we live in the “night of exile”, and just as at night one cannot see as clearly as during the day, so we are unable to clearly see the miracles. They are there, but they are hard to see.
Dealing With a Hidden God
If the reality of a hidden God has been the reality of the Jewish people for almost two millennia, how did generations of believers deal with it? We find a multitude of theological, moral and practical remedies that have been offered as an explanation to help deal with this harsh reality.
It started in the days of the Prophets. When the prophet Yehsayahu speaks to the exiled Jews in Babylon, he asks those of lowly faith why they keep complaining that their ways are “hidden from God” and that “God does not judge them properly” – see ref. 16. His remedy to their plight is somewhat surprising. He tells them to look at Creation and understand that God does not relent, does not get faint or weary and that you cannot understand His ways.
(This advice immediately brings to mind the famous answer of God to Iyov (Job). After the monologues of Iyov and the discussions with his peers, when God finally answers Iyov – “the reply from the storm” in ch. 38 - He tells him to look at Creation and asks rhetorically: Who laid the foundations of the Earth? Who created the oceans? Who causes the sun to rise in the morning? And who is the father of rain?)
How does looking at Creation help with hester panim? Rashi explains – see ref.17 – that the hester panim was a result of God seemingly ignoring the positive acts of the people. Despite the fact that they worshipped God, He put them to the mercy of those who do not worship Him (i.e. the gentiles). But if you look at Creation you come to realise that somebody with the power and wisdom to create the world surely knows what is best for you, and the reason He puts you through these hardships is “to finish off sins by means of affliction”.
Rashi’s explanation lays the foundation for the concept of yisurim me’ahava, loving faith through hardship and suffering. He does not deny that there is suffering and that it might seem unjust in our eyes, but he begs us to understand that through this suffering God is cleansing us from our sins and we should trust his infinite wisdom and intelligence. The same concept is obviously a major theme in the book of Iyov.
Rambam on Hester and Divine Providence
Rashi’s explanation of yisurim me’ahava - accepting the hardships and sufferings with loving faith - is rejected by Rambam – see ref. 18 – who writes that this concept has no mention in the Torah. This is in line with Rambam’s understanding of the concept of Divine Providence and how this hashgacha is related to hester panim.
Rambam distinguishes between “hashgacha kelalit” and “hashgacha peratit”. The former is present for both humans and animals, but the latter is present only for humans. General Providence relates to the entire species, God making sure that the entire species is not wiped out but individual specimens may. Private Providence pertains to each person individually. It is not our purpose here to go deeper into this distinction, but rather find the significance of “hashgacha peratit” in the age of hester panim according to the Rambam.
The common view is that each person enjoys a “personal hashgacha” from God, as a result of the bond between the Creator and His creations. However, Rambam explains that hashgacha peratit is not a one-way street; one is not automatically guaranteed this private Providence and it is up to humans to make sure they enjoy this privilege. Rambam explains – see ref. 19 – that only a person who is constantly “with God” and following His ways is under the hashgacha peratit, but when a person allows his thinking to “be devoid” of God this hashgacha is removed. Then Rambam quotes the verse from Devarim and concludes that we, and only we, are the reason for this hester panim.
(The title of this shi’ur is “The Hidden God” and not “The Hiding God” as a result of Rambam’s view. It is not God that is doing the hiding; it is us that make Him hidden from us.)
It is important to note that many Sages did not agree with the Rambam on this point and interpreted his words to reach a different conclusion. For example, Ha’Ari Ha’Kadosh says – see ref. 20 – that indeed man is subject to nature, but hester panim does not mean there is no hashgacha peratit. It exists, but it is manifested in hidden ways.
Never Losing Hope
One continuous line throughout the ages has been not to lose hope. The Jewish people have survived in a reality of hester panim and have found ways to deal with it both theologically and practically.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin – see ref. 21 – comments on the status of widowhood of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, as we read in Meggilat Eicha, and comments that this is a temporary situation. Jerusalem is likened to a woman whose husband has gone overseas and has an intention to come back. The same analogy is made in the Midrash in Kohellet Raba – see ref. 22 - using a parable about a woman who makes herself beautiful even in the absence of her husband, telling her neighbours that she must be ready for his imminent return. Thus, concludes the Midrash, should people beautify themselves with Mitzvot and good deeds in anticipation of the return of God.
In conclusion, there are two major points to be made about living in an age of hester panim:
§ The hiding of God is in large measure a result of our actions. Not only does the Torah say so explicitly, but also many commentators and Sages have linked our actions with this hiding. Although nobody likes to be punished, we need to focus our thoughts not on why we are punished (as we will never be able to understand the ways of God), but rather on what we can do in order to follow the ways of God and overcome the hardships of worshipping a hidden God.
§ There is always hope. In countless places God promised us that He will never forsake us forever. Even when promising that He will hide His face, He also promised that He will be with us even though we are unable to see Him, hear Him or comprehend His ways. The biggest risk lies in the “hiding of the hiding”; we must be careful not to fall asleep and forget that God is with us. We need to remember that we are capable of “climbing the steel wall” and getting closer to God.
On this night, as we re-affirm our acceptance of the Torah by staying up all night and learning, let us pray that we will live to witness the removal of the barrier, the end of the age of hester panim, soon in our days. Amen.