Nitzavim/Vayelech- Hide and Seek and Return

As we find ourselves more than halfway through the month of Elul, less than a week from the Day of Judgement, it is no coincidence that we will be reading the dynamic duo of נצבים-וילך as our weekly Torah portion. As Moshe Rabeinu’s final monologues come to a close, he discusses many important תשובה themes, many as relevant to us now as they were to the Jewish People back in the wilderness. I would like to focus on one specific theme, one message which is super-relevant to us, considering some of the more current events, as we approach the Jewish New Year.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם-אֲבֹתֶיךָ; וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר הוּא בָא-שָׁמָּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ, וַעֲזָבַנִי, וְהֵפֵר אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ.  וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם, וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל, וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת; וְאָמַר, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, הֲלֹא עַל כִּי-אֵין אֱלֹקי בְּקִרְבִּי, מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה. וְאָנֹכִי, הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, עַל כָּל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה:  כִּי פָנָה, אֶל-אֱלֹקים אֲחֵרִים.

And G-d said to Moshe: You will soon lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after gods that are foreign to this land, that come there in their midst, and they [the Jews] will abandon Me and violate the covenant that I established with them. And I will become angry with them on that day and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be prey and many evils and troubles will find them. And they will say on that day; ‘haven’t these happened to us because there is no G-d in our midst?’ And I will hide my face on that day, because of all of the evil that they have done. (דברים לא: טז-יח)

These פסוקים, demonstrating the rationale that we all feel when bad things befall us, show us that we must remember that G-d sometimes must use His אלקים (מדת הדין) alter-ego. When this happens, we are usually prone to ask ourselves; “Where is G-d? How could He possibly exist if such bad things are happening?” The answer that we must keep in mind in these situations is, as the פסוק concludes; “אנכי הסתר אסתיר פני… על כל הרעה אשר עשה”- these bad things are happening to us because we sinned, and G-d is punishing us to atone for our sins. Reading between the lines in this section, we can infer that the best course of action when faced with adversity is to think about why G-d is “hiding His face from us” and do תשובה so that we can merit His presence again.

If we look a little bit closer in the פסוקים, an obvious question emerges. G-d tells Moshe that when the Jews will eventually sin, He will hide His face (“והסתרתי פני”). But, when they confess their sins and say “מצאוני הרעות האלה,” G-d not only remains hidden, but the hiddenness is doubled (“הסתיר אסתיר”). Why does G-d seem to hide His face even more when the Jews admit their sins?

Rav Teichtel, quoting Rav Yosef Tzarfati’s יד יוסף, offers a very interesting answer with practical ramifications in our day-to-day lives. Looking back in ספר שמות, Pharoah would continually feel remorse during every מכה that hit his people, saying “ה’ הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים- G-d is righteous and I and my people are wicked.” But, his remorse and subsequent “תשובה” only lasted as long as there was a plague on his country, and immediately afterwards, he would revert to normal and G-d would be forced to inflict another plague on Egypt. The same idea applies in פרשת וילך- If the Jewish People, when punished by G-d, only do תשובה in response to “וחרה אפי בו ביום ההוא”- to the punishment on that day, but as soon as G-d’s anger passes, they return to their evil ways, then we have not actually done תשובה, and G-d will become even more angry, as shown in the double language “ואנכי הסתר אסתיר.” Rav Teichtel, applying the יד יוסף’s teaching to the biggest concern of his time, the Holocaust, concludes with an important lesson. We were sent into the exile because of our sins, and our continued presence there shows that we have not yet done תשובה yet. Every time that G-d hides His face and sends trouble our way, we are reminded of the importance of returning to our national homeland. But, if we forget about this as soon as the troubles go away, then we could also, חס ושלום, be punished with a double punishment, in fulfillment of הסתר אסתיר.

This teaching of Rav Teitchtel and Rav Tzarfati is a very important one for us as we begin saying סליחות on מוצאי שבת and prepare for תקופת תשרי. When tragedy hits, it’s very easy to say we are sorry, to contemplate how we can do better. But, the real challenge of תשובה is to seek out repentance without pressure and make amends without constraint. Through a raised awareness of this caveat of repentance, we will iy”h be זוכה to see all of עם ישראל doing a more complete תשובה.

This is an important message for us, especially given some recent world events. Things have picked up in Syria, which has been in the midst of a civil war for the past couple of years, with the rulers using chemical weapons on rebels. Egypt, less than a year into its “democratically elected” government, is about to lose any sense of stability again, and the Arab Spring has truly become a gift that keeps on giving. In the middle of this sits Israel, refusing to get involved until provoked, with a heavy threat of annihilation coming from Iran the minute that Israel joins the party. Gas masks are being distributed, sirens are being tested, and there is a general feeling of “something wicked this way comes.” I believe that it is no coincidence that this rise in tension is happening now in חודש אלול- we must take it, like the blowing of the shofar every morning, as a call to reform and repentance, as we say both days of Rosh Hashana: “ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע גזירה- Repentance, Prayer, and Charity remove the evil decree.” But, given the context of our פרשיות, I believe that there is more that we must take upon ourselves. It is not enough to do a speedy תשובה in the face of the political and physical threats facing the Jewish People right now- that might temporarily get rid of the רוע גזירה, but if we forget our commitments the minute that the threat goes away, we will only earn ourselves “הסתר אסתיר”- a double cursing. Rather, we must take upon ourselves significant resolutions, ones that will outlast every conflict that we will face. Only through this can we earn G-d’s removal of הסתר פנים, better times for עם ישראל, and the גאולה שלמה very soon.