We are now rapidly approaching the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ second rendition of the Torah. We read about the leader’s final days, how God tells him what will be when he is gone and how the Israelites will surely leave Adonai, the God of Israel and worship other gods:

וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה | כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. (Deut. 31:18)

The expression haster astir, (I will keep My countenance hidden) is not particularly difficult from a linguistic point of view. The double use of the verb ST”R, meaning “to hide” serves to intensify the meaning, in this case, God’s presence will not only be hidden, it will be kept hidden.

Still, these kinds of phrases have always afforded Jewish commentators over the centuries an opportunity to embellish the biblical text.

The well-known Spanish scholar, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 11-12th centuries is unique in his self-awareness regarding this tendency. This doesn’t stop him from interpreting the double language as meaning “if they cry out to me, I will not answer – this can be compared to one who does not see and therefore does not know that something needs to be done”. But his final comment on this phrase is, “Linguists know that this is normal for [the Hebrew] language”.

We certainly understand what Ibn Ezra is referring to, if not from a theological point of view, then on a sociological level. How often do we pretend not to see, and therefore absolve ourselves from the obligation of action?

Rabbi Zechariah the Healer is not nearly as famous as Ibn Ezra. He lived in Yemen and compiled an anthology of rabbinic interpretations of the Torah in the 15th century entitled Midrash HaHefetz. His solution for the double language is to assign each usage of the verb ST”R to a different historical event: haster refers to God’s “hiding” during the destruction of the First Temple, astir during the destruction of the Second Temple.

On one hand, this is kind of a double blow with devasting consequence for the Jewish people. Indeed, this is in line with the centuries long rabbinic view of our people’s history. In fact those two events were so devastating that the Jewish people have never – according to rabbinic historiography – fully recovered. Had Rabbi Zechariah written after the Shoah, he might have needed another verse upon which to base his remarks, but of course, from his vantage point in the 15th century, despite persecution of Jews in other lands and in other times that he surely knew about, these were the two “devastating blows” of which he could speak.

Yet on the other hand, there is something positive, even encouraging, about this way of looking at the verse in Deuteronomy: tragic events are limited, there only were, and there will only be, two such catastrophes. How easy it is for us to become depressed and discouraged when things begin to go wrong? We tend to see the worst and to imagine that things will never get better. Of course, with time, they usually do.

The founder of the Hassidic movement, Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, who lived in what is now in the Ukraine in the early 18th century played with our two words a bit and read them as if God was saying, “I will hide the fact that I am hiding from you!”. If God hides Godself from you, explains the Baal Shem Tov, you have no idea that you are behaving poorly. It appears to you as if you are a good person and innocent of any wrong doing and therefore you do nothing to improve yourself. But once you realize that God has been hiding from you, then you are inclined to repent, to do tshuvah, and to ask God for help.

On this Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let us take in the various messages found in the interpretive traditions regarding this verse:

  • Let us expect from God to pay attention to our crying out for help, only after we stop pretending not to hear and see the problems of others;
  • Let us realize that there really is a limit to our suffering; that it does not, and in fact, does not go on indefinitely;
  • Let us be mindful enough to realize when God’s presence has left us – however each of us chooses to define that presence – and not be oblivious to our ignorance.
  • Most of all, in the few days that are left before we gather together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let us be open and learn about God’s presence, about prayer, about repentance, that is, returning to the ways we know to be proper and true.

G’mar hatimah tovah!