As Moses resigns himself to his death, he receives an anguished warning from God. Up till then, God had been urging Moses to accept his fate that, no sooner will he be gone than Israel, whom he loves more dearly than his own children, will “rise up and play the harlot . . . forsake God, and break the covenant.”
The consequences will be disastrous. “I will indeed hide My face from them on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods,” says the Most High. (Deuteronomy 31:16–18)
God envisages being abandoned by His people. Israel’s new generation, with their future before them, are totally immune to the emotional havoc they wreak on the pair who care for them most.
Why would God confide this unless he hoped that Moses, in his final moments, could do something about it! Implicit in all these rhapsodies of divine anger and punishment is an aching, inchoate love that, falling back on itself, turns negative.
Until now, in moments like this, Moses’ intervention has been crucial. To enter into human affairs, it appears, God needs at least one bona fide human to talk to, and Moses is that person.
To Moses God can talk face-to-face “as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11) — with intimacy, simplicity, the transparency arising from faith.
Rabbinic Midrash, or commentary, link “face-to-face” to humankind’s study of Torah. “Come now,” God invites his friend, “let us together explore the different facets and subjective modes of Torah” — a midrashic proposal that can be applied more widely.
Midrash compares this very personal relationship to two friends with a single cup of tea. If one finds it too hot, he blows it cold, while if the other finds it too cold, he can add hot water. Exodus Rabba explains that between friends there is an unspoken pact: When God was angry with Israel, Moses would rush to mollify Him, whereas if Moses lost his temper God would calm him. However, this bond was totally predicated on Israel.
What then could God be looking for, when He singles out a man, or a nation, and chooses them as His favorite?
“But He looked for a man, a fence mender, somebody who could stand in the breach against (Him) on behalf of the land, that [He] not destroy the land,” (Ezek. 22:30).
The grace God looks for in humans and in the Jewish nation is no external quality, but precisely the courage of one’s compassion, the strength to stand in defense of others, one’s own people above all. This, too, is what is meant by “face-to-face.”
Until now God has only contemplated the death of His only friend. When Israel strays from the covenant, as they inevitably will, He will reflexively do the opposite of the “face-to-face”: “I will indeed hide My face from them” (Deut. 31: 17–18), meaning God will retreat into incommunicability, a state from which all other sufferings and persecution follow. God foresees this lack of verbal communication and finds it intolerable, as he does his favorite’s passing.
When one weeps and sheds tears for a good person, they also cause tears to be shed on high.
One might think that concealment of the divine would be construed by the early rabbis as a total negative. That is precisely how, at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, a Jewish heretic in Caesar’s court would read the plight of world Jewry: In a dispute with R. Joshua b. Hanina, the heretic used a gesture of rejection to mimic what he believed to be the meaning of the words “a people from whom their God has averted His face.” R. Joshua, however, responded with an inclusive cradling motion, a reference to the verse “I have enfolded you in the shadow of My hand.” (Isa. 51:16) In other words, “hiding of the face” signifies a special protective Providence, rather than God’s turning away.
From Talmud onward, the rabbis displayed a typically Jewish characteristic with regard to this text, reading a positive into the negative. For them hiding does not mean emptiness but a treasure hunt. Only with His people, and with people of faith, does God play these seductive games of hide-and-seek.
According to the Zohar, divine concealment implies shadow, inwardness, spirituality, subjective engagement, and therefore a deeper revelation. Every word concealed from the eyes attains a supernal value: “I have enfolded you in the shadow of My hand.”
But what is God doing while hiding from His children? In the Talmud already there is a notion that He is weeping, and the verse in question is heard as an anguished question: “Will I indeed hide My face?” It evokes the image of a Master of the World so affected by human suffering that when, despite all His power, He cannot intervene, He wraps Himself round and round with His tallit, in order to hide in its folds and weep. “The Holy One, blessed be He, has a place and its name is ‘secret.’ It is there that He sits and weeps,” Tractate Hagiga (5b) explains.
The tractate goes on to say that viewed from the outside, God behaves like a transcendent being, but in His secret heart, His innermost hiding place, He empathizes with the pain of His creatures, longing for humans to initiate the tears that He cannot shed until flesh and blood lead the way. Chaim Vital’s slant on the talmudic notion that “the gates of tears were never locked” is that, because humans are created in God’s image, what happens below affects the Divine. An ordinary person crying for the loss of a loved one or filled with compassion for others impacts the Divine realm.
Vital’s suggests, “When one weeps and sheds tears for a good person, they also cause tears to be shed on high.” This is related to the prophet Jeremiah’s description of how God himself would like to cry but cannot:“Oh, that my head were waters” (Jer. 13:17) He mourns, but must wait for people to act before He can.
A wonderful midrash says that after urging His favorite to resign himself, when Moses was finally ready to hand over his soul, God began to weep, saying: “Who will stand against Me on the day of anger? And who will speak up for Israel when they speak against Me?”
This picture conjures up a God who mourns His one true friend for his own sake, but also for his all but infinite capacity to elicit compassion and deliverance for the Jewish people.
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Friday, Sept. 11, 2020
Elul 22, 5780
Light Candles at 6:53 pm
Torah Reading: Nitzavim-Vayelech: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Shabbat Ends at 7:50 pm