Deuteronomy 31:1-30; Isaiah 55:6-56:8; Matt 18:21 – 35
Parashat VaYelech is the shortest of all the 54 Torah portions that are read throughout the Jewish year. It is only one chapter long! The ten-day period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Aseret Y’mei Teshuva – The Ten Days of Repentance. It is also known as Yomim Noraim – The Days of Awe. And therefore, the Shabbat that falls within this 10-day period is appropriately called Shabbat Shuva – the Sabbath of Turning or the Sabbath of Repentance.
Now, the portion commences with Moses encouraging both Israel and her new leader, Joshua.
Adonai your God—He will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations from before you, and you will dispossess them. Joshua will cross over before you, just as Adonai has promised. "Adonai will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when He destroyed them. Adonai will give them over to you,
Chazak! Be courageous! Do not be afraid or tremble before them. For Adonai your God—He is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or abandon you."
But, immediately after urging to be courageous and free of fear, Moshe them prophesies that God’s people will fall into apostasy and break the terms of the covenant, with the resultant consequences.
Adonai said to Moses, "Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise up and prostitute themselves with the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will abandon Me and break My covenant that I cut with them. Then My anger will flare against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. So they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will come on them. They will say on that day, ‘Isn't it because our God is not among us that these evils have come on us?'
I will surely hide My face on that day because of all the evil they have done, for they have turned to other gods.
This prophecy that HaShem will conceal His Face from His people is known, in Jewish theology as Hester or Hastorat Panim - The Hidden Face of God – הֶסְתֵר פָּנִים. This phrase, ‘I will hide My face’, is used only 4 times in scripture;
twice in Deuteronomy 31
once in Dev 32:20 – ‘I will hide My Face from them..’
These 3 accounts of the Father ‘hiding His Face’ from His people, is the consequence of their sins. However, the 4th occurrence when this phrase occurs, is in restoration.
Eze 39:27 - 29.
When I have brought them back from the peoples and have gathered them out of their enemies' lands, I will be sanctified in them in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am Adonai their God, since it was I who caused them to go into exile among the nations and I who will gather them back to their own land. I will never again leave them there.
I will never again hide My face from them. For I have poured out My Ruach upon the house of Israel." It is a declaration of Adonai.
Throughout our sad and tragic history, we Jews have experienced what we have considered to be the hidden face of HaShem. We think of the pogroms, the crusades, the expulsions from various lands, the Holocaust and even today, the frightening rise is anti-Semitism under various humanistic guises. Our traumatic history does not seem to affirm that God has always been watching out for us. But, is this the true? Has God at times forsaken His chosen people?
Yet, considering the history of Israel’s flirtation with the gods of the surrounding nations, we must ask ourselves whether this reason is enough for such a severe punishment. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud mentions that the moment that God uttered these words was the single most difficult moment in the history of mankind.
The Father is “watching over His word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:12). But there also comes a time that when a person or a people consistently and deliberately resist the call to make teshuva, that the Father hands them over to follow the evil inclinations of their own hearts and minds. In that moment, God removes His Hand of protection or divine providence.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”.
A midrash (Tana DiBei Eliyahu Zuta 12), however, maintains that God can be found even in the midst of the experience of God’s hidden face. A midrash compares the state of hester panim to a king that sits behind an wall and announces to all his servants that can climb over the wall in order to have an audience with him. The belief is that those that find Hashem in times of hester panim are especially cherished.
The concept of the concealed face first appears in the creation account, when after tasting the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid themselves “from the face of God”. God walked with them in the cool of the evening but after their disobedience, Adam and Eve initiated that separation or the hiddenness of God’s face. After HaShem cast them out from paradise, we read:
He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
Hester Panim was first initiated by man, not by HaShem!
Then, we read after Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asks Cain, “Why has your face fallen?” (Genesis 4:6). Having admitted his guilt, Cain summarizes his punishment: “Here, you drive me away from the face of the soil, and from your face, must I conceal myself” (Genesis 4:14).
The concealed face of God and of man, represents a violent rift between people and God, a burden of a great wrong that is an ancient, sharing a similar vocabulary of pain and disappointment from both sides of the rift.
Furthermore, some commentators see this hiding of God’s face 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 Torah even in the midst of hardships and seeming absence of God’s face.
You are to remember all the way that Adonai your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness—in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His mitzvot or not.
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously once asked “Where is God? And he answers: ‘Wherever you let Him in”. Yeshua said in Rev 3:20
‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me’.
The fact is that there are moments when we do experience the absence of God’s influence in our lives but we should never succumb to fear and despair. Instead, what those moments should achieve and inculcate in us, is a deeper gratitude and appreciation in the moments when we DO see and experience His Presence.
“Seek the L-rd while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the L-rd, and He will have compassion on him, and to our G-d, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Now, some Jewish scholars view the Book of Esther as a midrash on the reference hester panim – the hidden face of God - found in our Torah portion.
And the sage Chazal makes this connection because there is a similarity between the Hebrew word for ‘hiddenness’ – hester – הֶסְתֵר פָּנִים- – and the name, ‘Esther’ – אֶסְתֵּר.
In the book of Esther, we find the Jewish people under dire threat from Hamman, who is evil personified. But, Queen Esther acts on the counsel of Mordechai her uncle and the Jewish people are spared. The astonishing thing that we discover in the book of Esther, is that the name of God is not once mentioned or alluded to. And yet, God’s hand of providence is evident.
In our parasha, G-d predicts that once Israel’s takes possession of the Land, they will fall prey to idolatry and collapse in sin. All 96 of the curses of Dev 28 will come upon them because they will depart from the terms of the covenant. The hidden face of G-d will surely bring calamity and disaster upon G-d’s people.
And yet, in the book of Esther, the hidden face of G-d results in deliverance and a great victory. Purim is a joyous celebration of God’s victory over His and Israel’s enemies.
THIS THEN IS OUR DILEMMA AS WE TRY TO MAKE SENSE OF HASTORAT PANIM – THE HIDDEN FACE OF G-D! Does it end it calamity or does it end in victory? And, in typical fashion, the answer is both yes and no. But the sages take this a step further. They also compare Purim, a celebration of a great victory over the evil Hamman, to Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and afflicting one’s soul.
Jewish teachers note that etymologically, Purim is partnered with Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement. In fact, in Jewish thinking, Yom HaKippurim is said to be a day k’purim – a day like Purim.
This linguistic and thematic connection reflects on the tone of both days, although they appear worlds apart. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and afflicting one’s soul. Purim, on the other hand, is a joyous celebration of deliverance and redemption.
But, if they are so different in meaning and observance, how can Yom HaKippurim is said to be a day like Purim. What is the connection?
I believe that a lesson we can take from this seemingly odd comparison is that in order to find God, we must seek His face, independent of whether we are fasting or rejoicing in a great deliverance. Our posture should be one of seeking in ALL circumstances!
But this one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the reward of the upward calling of God in Messiah Yeshua.