Vayeilech: The Hidden Face and the Silent Song

Too many times in the history of our people, we have been compelled to ask the question, "Where is God?" Too many of our prophets, beginning with Moses himself, have been confounded by the question, "Why do the righteous suffer?"

Philosophers have so struggled to reconcile the concept of a benevolent deity with the evil that exists in the world that they invented a word to refer to their struggle. That word is "theodicy," defined as "the answer to the question of why God permits evil."

Our Rabbis have similarly struggled with this question. For them, the question is a far-reaching one. It extends from their concern with a single suffering individual to their horror over the suffering of millions.

As Nachmanides puts it in his thought-provoking work on the subject, Shaar HaGmul: "This problem is not reduced if those who fall are few in number; nor does it become more serious if the number increases. We are not discussing the ways of man… Our arguments concern the Rock, whose work is perfect and all His ways just…"

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30), provides a text that has been repeatedly used by those who search to understand the Almighty's often puzzling ways. The text reads:

"Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them… And many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, 'Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.' Yet, I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. And now, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... When the many evils and troubles befall them—then this song shall respond as a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring." (Deuteronomy 31:17-21)

Here we encounter that fearful image: the Hidden Face of the Divine, hester panim.

In this passage, the meaning of "the Hiding of the Face" is clear. It refers to divine judgment and punishment. God "hides his face" from those who turn their faces away from Him. "Umipnei chata’einu galinu mei'artzenu, because of our sins, we have been exiled from our Land."

In his book Faith after the Holocaust, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits uncovers another meaning of "the Hiding of the Face". Whereas in our Torah portion the expression signifies divine retribution, elsewhere in the Bible we find that even the innocent feel forsaken because of the Hiding of the Face. One example of this alternate form of hester panim is to be found in psalm 44, where we read:

"Awake! Why do You sleep, Lord?

Rouse Yourself, do not reject us forever.

Why do You hide Your face,

and forget our misery and oppression?" (Psalms 44:24-25)

Rabbi Berkovits correctly insists that "the Hiding of the Face, about which the Psalmist complains is altogether different from its meaning in Deuteronomy. There it is a manifestation of divine anger and judgment over the wicked; here, it is indifference—God seems to be unconcernedly asleep during the tribulations inflicted by man on his fellow.… It is God hiding Himself mysteriously from the cry of the innocent."

Rabbi Berkovits enables us to understand the significance of this second form of hester panim, of apparent divine indifference, by invoking the passage in Isaiah in which the prophet says of God, "You are indeed a God who conceals Himself" (Isaiah 45:15). "For Isaiah, writes Rabbi Berkovits, “God's self-hiding is an attribute of divine nature. Such is God. He is a God who hides himself."

How is Man to relate to a God who is el mistater, a God who hides Himself? In response to this question Isaiah asserts: "I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob, and I will trust in Him." (Isaiah 8:17).

Few of us can compare himself to Isaiah. Isaiah could trust in a God who hides his face. He was not daunted by hester panim. What options are there for those of us of lesser faith?

It is in response to this question that I offer a remarkable reinterpretation of our text by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap. Rabbi Charlap lived and taught in Jerusalem before passing away in 1951. His voluminous writings on Jewish thought are contained in a series of nearly twenty volumes entitled Mei Merom, "Waters from on High." Volume 5 of this series is subtitled Nimukei Mikraot and contains brief comments on biblical verses. Here is his perspective on the verse in this week's Torah portion with which we began this essay.

That text began with the Almighty's threat to hide His face, but then surprisingly and suddenly He instructed Moses to write down a song to be taught to the people of Israel. Troubled by this abrupt shift, Rabbi Charlap offers this novel interpretation:

"If the terrible troubles and evils which you experience do not lead you to conclude that God's love has brought them upon you, in the manner in which a father disciplines the son he loves, and you imagine that God has distanced himself from you, and that it is ‘Because He is no longer in your midst’ that these troubles have occurred to you, know that such thoughts are equivalent to turning to other gods, to idolatry. Therefore God will hide his face from you. Instead, ‘write down this song,’ and thereby recognize that both blessings and curses are but one long and lofty song of love. Know that even ‘many evils and troubles’ are God’s awesome rebukes for your misbehavior, but ultimately stem from the source of song, and are but a sublime expression of the great mercy concealed in an absolute divine love. This song of love never ceases, not even for a moment, and will 'never be lost from the mouth of your offspring'."

In this reworking of the biblical text, Rabbi Charlap understands that the people's feelings of abandonment reflect a lack of faith. A fully faithful person would, very much like Isaiah, see the face of God behind its veil of concealment. He would hear the silent song behind the hidden face.

Unlike Rabbi Berkovits, Rabbi Charlap never devoted a book to the theology of the Holocaust. But his creative reinterpretation of the text we have been studying helps us understand the reaction of those faithful who did retain their faith during the tragic years of the Holocaust. However troubled they were by God's hidden face, by His hester panim, they succeeded in hearing the silent songs behind the hidden face.

More than that, they were able to compose songs of their own, songs of hope and faith and heroism.

A partisan in the woods surrounding Vilna, Hirsh Glick, was able to compose the Song of the Partisans, which began, "Zog nit keinmal az du geyst den lesten veg, Never say that you are going on your final journey".

A Chassidic Jew en route to Treblinka, Rabbi Azriel David Fastag, taught the melody he composed to the words of Ani Maamin, which gave meaning to the last moments of so many Jews, and remain an anthem for the faithful to this very day.

Behind the Hiding of the Face, he heard the silent song: "Ani Maamin, I believe with full faith, in the coming of the Messiah, and however much he tarries, I will nevertheless await him."

Whether God seems to forsake us in our private lives, or when we struggle to understand those times in our national history when the Almighty seemed to abandon His people, we must listen carefully for the silent song that lies behind His hidden face. That silent song is nothing less than the song of Torah, the song that enables us to endure moments of God's concealment, and to one day enjoy the priestly blessing which assures us that "the Lord will make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you."