G-d Hiding from Us[1]

Have there ever been times in your life when you do not believe in G-d? When you think there’s no possible way G-d can exist? While our tradition does not assert this, it certainly does claim that there are times that G-d has abandoned us or has not been there for us. One example is from this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ swan song to the people of Israel, in which he states, ויאמר אסתירה פני מהם אראה מה אחריתם “G-d said ‘I will hide my face from them, and see how they fare in the end.” [2] By hiding G-d’s face and not supporting Israel, He is giving Israel into the hands of their enemies. The theology behind this is that when Israel loses a battle it is because G-d has taken the side of its enemies.

This view, present throughout Deuteronomy, is indicative of a theology that I find to be anathema and repugnant to Judaism: that G-d aides our enemies in order to teach us a lesson. I cannot believe in a G-d who would “sell us out” in order to help Nebuchadnezzar, Titus and (G-d forbid) Hitler. Yet this is a core part of the theology of the Deuteronomist. The covenant which was reaffirmed in Parshat Nitzavim, is only held as long as Israel holds its end of the bargain: the second that Israel strays from following the commandments, G-d will give Israel to the hands of our enemies.

When atrocities have befallen our people, it is easy to rationalize that it must be because we did something wrong. However, this too often leads to what has become classically known as “Jewish guilt;” that if we are suffering it must be because of something we did. In the Bible, however, there’s a contrary view to this. When we look at the Book of Job, Job’s “friends” (with friends like those, who needs enemies?) who blame his misfortune on some defect of his behavior are castigated. At the end, we are left with G-d appearing in the whirlwind, proclaiming to Eliphaz, חרה אפי בך ובשני רעך כי לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב, “I am incensed with you and with your two friends for you did not speak about me correctly as did my servant Job.”[3] It is clear that Job is suffering not because of something he did but for another reason. Little does he know it is because of a bet made by G-d against השטן, the adversary!

One can go a step further, however, and (at the risk of sounding sacrilegious) shift the blame to G-d. Psalm 44 reads כל זאת באתנו ולא שכחנוך ולא שקרנו בבריתך, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.”[4] The Psalmist castigates G-d: עורה, למה תישן אדני הקיצה אל-תזנח לנצח! “Rouse yourself: why do you sleep O LORD? Awaken, do not reject us forever!”[5] Then we get the response affirming this week’s parsha: למה-פניך תסתיר תשכח ענינו ולחצנו, “Why have you hidden your face, ignoring our affliction and distress?”[6] The psalm ends with a charge to G-d קומה עזרתה לנו ופדנו למען חסדך, “Rise up and help us; redeem us as befits Your faithfulness.”[7] The psalmist sees Israel as keeping its end of the bargain and G-d as the one who is not being faithful to the covenant. This “pious irreverence”[8] is, I would argue, as much a part of our theology as Deuteronomy.

Questioning G-d is not something relegated to the biblical period. In the Talmud there is the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai,[9] where Rabbi Joshua disregards a voice from heaven itself, proclaiming that the law is not in heaven. G-d replies to this challenge נצחוני בני, “My children have defeated me!” indicating that He enjoys being challenged and being taken to task. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, as our nation’s two greatest leaders, Abraham and Moses, both took G-d to task at pivotal moments: whether Sodom and Gamorrah or the attempt to destroy all of Israel after the sin of the spies.

The Hasidic masters frequently challenged G-d, the most famous being Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who proclaimed one Rosh Hashanah: “Lord of the Universe, you said let it be a day of shofar-blowing, and in honor of that one commandment we blow the shofar 100 times. Multitudes of Jews have been blowing the shofar for thousands of years, and we multitudes of Jews have been shouting and praying and begging you for centuries: Sound just one great blast of the shofar and set us free – and still you have not done so!”[10]

In his book The Trial of God,[11] Elie Wiesel tells a story about himself, along with two other inmates of Auschwitz, forming a Beit Din to put G-d on trial. The verdict of the Beit Din was that G-d is חייב, or guilty, and that He owes the inmates something for abandoning them. Wiesel was certainly not the only one who found G-d to be guilty. The Piaseczno Rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, in his book Esh Kodesh, writes that just as Sarah could not tolerate the suffering and almost sacrifice of her son, so too could Jews in Europe not tolerate the torturous Nazi regime.[12]

The next time our suffering feels unwarranted, undeserved or too much to bear, let us not think (G-d forbid) that it is a result of G-d punishing us. As one of my teachers said, “Let religion not be part of the problem but rather part of the solution.”[13] May we help those who are suffering rather than admonishing them or laying guilt on them that it is because of their sins. Let us remain in dialogue with the Almighty and not be afraid to call Him to task as the Psalmist and the Hasidic rebbes do. May we only have goodness, blessing and prosperity in 5779 and may we do all we can to alleviate suffering experienced both by us and by our fellow human beings.

[1] This sermon was generated from online learning by Rabbi Avital Hochstein of Mechon Hadar entitled Parashat Ha’Azinu: Human Existence in an Age of Divine Concealment.”

[2]  Deuteronomy 32:20

[3] Job 42:7

[4] Psalm 44:18. Thank you to Rabbi Shai Held for introducing me to this psalm.

[5] Psalm 44:24

[6] Psalm 44:25

[7] Psalm 44:27

[8] Term taken from the title of a book by Rabbi Dov Weiss

[9] Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b

[10] As seen on https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/1.4706935

[11] You can also view it in the movie God on Trial

[12] אש קדש פרדת חיי שרה “אפ”ל שגם שרה אמנו עצמה שנתנה כ”כ אל לבה מעשה העדדה עש שפרשה נשמתה, לטובת ישראל עשתה, להראות להשם איל א”א לישראל לסבול יסורים יותר מדי, ואפילו מי שבחמלת השם נשאר חי גם אחר יסורין מ”מ חלקי כחו ומוחו ורוחו נשברו ונאדבו ממנו, מה לי קטילה כלו ומה לי קלטיה פלגא.

[13] Learned at a rabbinical school mock interview from Rabbi Jacob Herber.

2 thoughts on “G-d Hiding from Us[1]

  1. You are speaking mainly of the Jewish people in relation to G-d. The same holds true for an individual person who is suffering, as in the Job example. I believe that while He allows nature to take its course, G-d is sad and suffers with the person who is miserable and hopes the person will get better/feel better/find a solution. I don’t think individual suffering is a punishment.


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