The passing of Elie Wiesel this summer prompted us to speak once again of the hiddenness of God.
For among Wiesel’s many contributions to Jewish discourse, this was one of the most important: a stark and unforgiving declaration of God’s absence from the world, in light of the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust. It was a matter of some debate whether or not Wiesel was describing his struggle to have faith in the very existence of God, or if - as Wiesel more often described it - he always believed that there was a God, but that this God had acted so unjustly, had been so oblivious to our sufferings, as to merit nothing from us but our outrage. Whatever the precise formulation, it was clear that Wiesel was giving voice to a question which many Jews needed an answer to after the Holocaust: in the language of one of the characters from his most famous work,Night, “For God’s sake, where is God?”
In fact, though Elie Wiesel may be its greatest modern articulator, that question stretches all the way back in Jewish thought. There is even a well-established term in classical Jewish literature for the concept of God’s hiddenness: Hester Panim, or, the ‘Hiding of God’s Face.’ That phrasing is borrowed from a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeilech, that describes God’s response to future idol-worship:
And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” But I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.(Deut. 31:18)
There is, here among the first generations of Israelites, already a sense of God’s abandonment. And God seems to confirm their suspicions with this enigmatic language: haster astir panai, ‘I will hide My face…’
Rashi refers to this ‘hiding’ as the worst possible punishment God could threaten:
There is no more terrible prophecy than the moment Moses delivered the words, “I will hide My face…”(Rashi’s commentary on Isaiah 8:17)
אין לך נבואה קשה כאותה שעה שאמר משה ( דברים לא ) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני
Terrible - but what does it mean? What is the nature of this divine hiddenness?
The classical commentators - Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Seforno - mostly suggest that this hiding refers to God’s unwillingness to intervene to save the people from suffering. Ibn Ezra puts it bluntly, as if speaking in God’s own voice:
If they call on Me, I will not answer.
שאם יקראו עלי לא אענם
This hiding is indeed meant as a punishment. God still exists, of course, but has turned His back on the people, and withdrawn from the world. It is up to God, then to reveal Godself once again.
Centuries later, the Chassidic commentators will describe God’s hiding not as a true withdrawal, but an illusion that must be overcome. Here the Degel Machaneh Ephraim recounts the metaphor for Hester Panim given by his grandfather, the Ba’al Shem Tov:
This is like a ruler who built many barriers around his palace, so that no one would enter it. But they were all optical illusions. And he hid inside, separated from his children, surrounded by walls, and fire, and rivers - but all just illusions. But the wisest child knew better - how was it possible that his merciful father would not want to see the faces of his beloved children? This must be an illusion that the father was using to test his children, to see if they would try to come see him. For in truth, there is no hiding. And so, as soon as he risked his life and walked into the river, the illusion disappeared and he was able to walk across. And so it was with all the barriers, until he came into the ruler’s palace.
המשל הוא למלך שעשה כמה מחיצות באחיזת עינים לפני היכלו שלא יוכלו ליכנס אליו ונסתתר שם ועשה חומות ואש ונהרות באחיזת עינים הכל לפני בניו. והנה, מי שהיה חכם נתן לב לדבר איך אפשר שאביו הרחמן לא יתרצה להראות פניו לבניו ידידיו, אין זה כי אם אחיזת עינים והאב רוצה לנסות אם ישתדל הבן לבא אליו ובאמת אין שום הסתרה. והנה, מיד כשמסר לנפשו לילך בנהר נסתר אחיזת עינים ועבר בו וכן בכל המחיצות עד שבא להיכל המלך
In this imagery, God is still hiding, but now with the secret desire to be found. And notice that the agency has shifted from God to human beings. It is upon us to see through illusions, and to search for the God who is still there, and only appears to have abandoned us.
The most startling commentary on Hester Panim, however, is to be found in the Talmud. Our verse is referenced in a strange discussion in Tractate Hulin (139b), in which the rabbis are searching for hidden clues in the Torah that predict the appearance of future characters in the Hebrew Bible. In particular, they are interested in finding allusions to the Book of Esther, the tale of Jewish persecution in ancient Persia. And so they ask:
Where is Esther to be found in the Torah? From the verse, “I will hide [my face],” haster astir …
אסתר מן התורה מנין (דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר
The linguistic connection is clear, just by the sound of the words: Esther / haster / astir. But what does it mean to say that this verse alludes to Esther? Is there something in the concept of divine hiddenness that predicts her coming?
At this point, one obvious connection requires mentioning. For the Book of Esther, it so happens, is the only book in the Hebrew Bible from which God is totally absent.* This is an entirely human drama, and the fight for survival takes no recourse to divine salvation. It is up to the heroes of the story - Mordechai, and particularly Esther - to save the day. Esther, counsels Mordechai, must reveal her Jewishness to her husband the King, in order to secure his protection for her people. Which she does, at great personal risk - and successfully. The Jews are saved, thanks to the great bravery of Esther. God, it seems, is not the savior in this story.
There may, however, be more to it than that. In his message asking for Esther’s help, Mordechai seems to hint that greater forces are at work. He warns her:
If you keep silent in this moment, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your household shall perish. And who knows, perhaps you have arrived at this royal position for just such a moment.(Esther 4:14)
What is Mordechai saying? What is this deliverance from “some other place”? Is this an oblique reference to God? And what does he mean that Esther has come into power “for just such a moment”? Is this Divine Providence working Its will, or are these just the winds of fate that have blown Esther here?
These are questions that have busied the commentators through the ages. One thing that is clear, however, is that in the end, Esther plays the role that we might have expected God to play. If God exists in this world, God is hidden. Whatever salvation we are to witness will be carried out by human beings.
And that is why the allusion to Esther in the Torah is contained in a verse that speaks of the hiddenness of God. For it was to her that we turned when God seemed totally absent. At the very moment that God’s face was hidden, Esther revealed herself.
In fact, if Esther is to be found in the the Hiddenness of God, we might also say that it is in Esther that God is hiding. Esther’s majestic revelation was a manifestation of divinity in a world that seemed completely absent of it.
And perhaps that is always the way. When God is most hidden from the world, we must find our salvation in other people. In human displays of courage and compassion we see sparks of divinity, illuminating the darkness of this terrifying existence.
So it was also with Elie Wiesel, whose works were at once an indictment of an absent God, and a stunning manifestation of divine wisdom and beauty, emerging from the midst of darkness. May his memory be a blessing for us all, and may his words continue to light our path into a better day.