The most recent weekly Torah reading, Vayelech, offers a lesson that is crucial for Yom Kippur. There, Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu what would happen in the future. B’nei Israel would abandon Hashem and break the treaty with Him. As a result, He would punish them for it:
Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?
Although this verse is understandable, the next one is difficult:
And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.
To sum it up, Hashem would punish B’nei Israel, they would say that their troubles had come because Hashem was not in their midst… and then Hashem would punish them again. It almost seems like Hashem would hide Himself from them because they regretted their transgressions! Isn’t it commendable, even a sign of repentance, to recognize the distance from God that one’s sins have created?
While Ramban and others deal with this question, today we’ll look at an answer from the Nesivos Shalom. A Jew, he explains, must believe that we are never fully distanced from Hashem; “even a steel wall could not separate us.” Even when Hashem hides His presence from us, He is still there for us. Just as the great Rebbe of Kubrin would say, “If a Jew is not able to bring himself to pray fervently to Hashem- even if he has violated the most severe sin in the Torah, heaven forbid- he has not even begun to step foot on the doorstep of Judaism!” A Jew must believe that Hashem accepts his heartfelt repentance and supplications.
The holy Ba’al Shem Tov compared the test of ‘Hester Panim”, God hiding Himself from us, to a king who set up a very difficult maze with which to challenge his subjects, and sat at the end of it for someone to reach him. Not only did there appear to be many tricky passages, high walls, and twists and turns with which to contend, but the king also arranged for there to be dangerous animals and the like placed throughout the maze; thus, even those who successfully navigated until a certain point soon retreated in fright. Finally, the king’s son decided that he would attempt the challenge, and began to wend his way through. Because he missed his father and couldn’t wait to be reunited with him after all this time, the prince pushed himself forward while calling out to the king, “Father, father, why have you abandoned me?” Seeing his dedication, his father then revealed that the walls and dividers were really all sophisticated illusions. Upon reaching his father, the prince asked, “Why did you abandon me, Father, and why did you not allow me to approach you?” The father then explained that he would never push his own son away from him, and that the point of this had been to test his devotion.
Sins, bad character traits, lusts, and negative feelings such as depression create distance between a person and Hashem. Yet nothing is nearly as harmful, nothing brings such spiritual devastation to a person, as the feeling that he is distant from Hashem. The old Rebbe of Slomin made a stunning comment: When the Evil Inclination induces a person to sin, his main intent is not the transgression itself, but to create a feeling of despair in the person when he will realize what he had just done; if a sinner feels that he is too far away to ever return and beyond repair, he gives up hope. Then, he quite suddenly disconnects from Hashem. The feeling of distance is truly the greatest barrier that one could create. We must strengthen ourselves in the belief that we can always rectify our mistakes, and that God awaits our return.
Why does Hashem respond to our sins by hiding Himself? Not because he ever leaves us, but because we must now be tested in our devotion to Him. We now understand the passage that we began with. Why does God blame us for feeling that He is not with us? Because He is always with us! He does hide from us after we sin, pushing us to come closer to Him with devotion, but is always accessible. The worst thing that a sinner can do, the last thing that Hashem wants him to do, is to fail the test that comes after the sin. It is precisely because B’nei Israel would say that He is ‘not there’ at all- even as a result of our sins- that Hashem punishes with a double measure of hiding His presence.
The message as we get ready to enter Yom Kippur is simple: we can always return. Our Father is waiting for us to come back.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.