Parashat Vayelekh - When G-d Turns Away
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | ה תשרי התשפ | 04.10.2019
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
When G-d Turns Away
Forging a Covenant
The momentous Stand at Mount Sinai, at which Bnei Yisrael received the Torah in a thunderous, once-in-history occurrence, also marked the forging of a historic and Divine covenant between Hashem and Israel. As we read in Parashat Mishpatim:
וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַדָּם וַיִּזְרֹק עַל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר,
הִנֵּה דַם הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת ה' עִמָּכֶם עַל כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה.
Moshe took the blood and threw it on the people, and said,
"Here is the blood of the covenant
that G-d has forged with you concerning all these words." (Sh'mot 24,8)
What are "all these words"? They are the Ten Commandments, which can be summed up in the first two of them, namely, the first commandment: אנוכי ה' א-להיך, "I am the Lord your G-d" (Sh'mot 20,2), and the second one, לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים, "You shall not have any other gods beside Me" (20,3). If we put the two of them together, the result is this:
- Hashem is G-d, and
- He is the only G-d.
That is to say, the first is a positive instruction, and the second one negates any other possibility. Idol worship is thus absolutely forbidden, even if Israel worships Hashem at the same time. This was precisely the state of affairs that Eliyahu HaNavi encountered on Mount Carmel, leading him to conduct the great showdown with the idolatrous prophets of Baal and Asherah: "Eliyahu approached the people and said: How long will you straddle both sides? If Hashem is G-d, go after Him, and if the Baal, then go after him..." (Kings I 18,21)
After Eliyahu orchestrated the great miracle in which he prayed to G-d and fire dropped miraculously from the sky to consume the offered sacrifice, the nation burst out with the proclamation that we repeat time after time during our High Holiday prayers:
ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים, ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים!
Hashem is the G-d! Hashem is the G-d! (verse 39)
They said it precisely twice, indicating what we stated above: Hashem is the G-d, and only Hashem is the G-d! If were to punctuate it, it would read like this: "Hashem, he is the G-d; Hashem He [alone] – is the G-d."
In one chapter in the Book of D'varim, Moshe Rabbeinu plainly emphasizes this insight, not once, but twice:
אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּוֹ.
You have been shown to know that Hashem is the G-d;
there is none other but Him. (D'varim 4,35)
This verse tells us first that Hashem is the G-d, and then that there is none other but Him; the second part negates any possibility other than the positive declaration of the first part. A few verses later we read both points again:
וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים
בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוֹד.
You shall know today, and acknowledge in your heart,
that Hashem is the G-d, in the heavens above and in the earth below;
there is none other. (verse 39)
In both verses we are taught:
- Hashem is G-d, and
- He is the only G-d.
This is also the meaning of the first verse of Kriat Sh'ma, known as the Verse of Unification, where again we emphasize:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד.
Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. (D'varim 6,4)
That is, Hashem is our G-d, and only He is our G-d – the One and only.
This principle will help us understand the third passage of Kriat Sh'ma, that of Tzitzit. It appears to contain three seemingly unnecessary repetitions. In the first instance, we read as follows:
וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת.
וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת...
They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations,
and they shall place a blue thread on the fringes of each corner.
This shall be fringes for you… (Bamidbar 15,38-39)
The last phrase appears to be redundant – but not according to the principle we set down above. The Torah simply wishes to emphasize both 1) this, and 2) only this. The first verse tells us how to make tzitzit: there must be a blue thread on each corner; the next verse – this shall be fringes for you – means that only with this blue thread shall you fulfill the mitzvah of fringes, and nothing else.
The second repetition in Kriat Sh'ma is:
וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת ה' וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם...
לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָי...
And you shall see it,
and remember all of Hashem's commandments and fulfill them…
So that you will remember and fulfill all My commandments… (verses 39-40)
Twice in a row the Torah tells us to remember and fulfill – why? Again, based on the above, the answer is straightforward: The emphasis in the second verse is that, in addition to remembering and fulfilling the mitzvot, we must know that only G-d's commandments are to be remembered and performed! We must not stray after the inclinations of our heart or eyes regarding idol worship, forbidden relationships, and the like – as written clearly: "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes" (verse 39). This is why the Torah then adds, in verse 40, the words: "you shall be holy unto your G-d," meaning you must be solely dedicated to the service of G-d, and not to other things that are forbidden.
And finally, this next verse in the Tzitzit passage follows the same pattern:
אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם... אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.
I am Hashem your G-d Who took you out of Egypt… I am Hashem your G-d. (verse 41)
Why twice? Once again, we implement the same principle: After G-d promises to be the G-d of Israel, He wishes to emphasize that only the People of Israel, and no other nation, will merit this lofty level. I am Hashem your G-d – and not the G-d of any other people. The first verse emphasizes I am Hashem, and the second one underlines your G-d.
All this returns us to the covenant that G-d made with Yitzchak Avinu – as Hashem told Avraham:
...אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן וְקָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִצְחָק -
But your wife Sarah will in fact bear you a son,
and you will call his name Yitzchak -
וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו.
and I will establish My covenant with him,
for an eternal covenant with his seed after him. (B'reshit 17,19)
But Avraham has another son, Yishmael. Will G-d also forge a covenant with him, just like with Yitzchak? Here is G-d's answer: "And regarding Yishmael, I have heard you. Behold I have blessed him and made him exceedingly great. He will father twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation." (verse 20)
Yishmael receives many blessings – but not the covenant! The Torah makes this clear in the very next verse: "But My covenant I will establish with Yitzchak, whom Sarah shall bear for you next year at this time." (verse 21)
In short, G-d is saying:
- I am forging a covenant with Yitzchak,
- and only with Yitzchak – no one else.
Violation of the Covenant
Let us return to the brit between G-d and Israel. Towards the end of the Torah, we read of a harsh, Divine warning of what is liable to happen to Am Yisrael after Moshe's death. The warning details the heavy sins that are liable to occur, and the consequent punishments. On the face of it, these seem to be fair, in that they are commensurate with the crime. But upon deeper reflection, we see that this is actually not the case.
Hashem tells Moshe that expected sin is as follows:
הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם אֲבֹתֶיךָ וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר הָאָרֶץ... וַעֲזָבַנִי...
Behold, you will lie with our fathers, and this nation will arise and will
stray after the alien gods of this land… and they will abandon Me… (D'varim 31,16)
The sin is comprised of two parts: Straying after alien gods, and abandoning G-d. Only if both elements are present in Israel's sin will it be viewed as an actual violation of the covenant between G-d and the People of Israel – as the verse itself concludes:
וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ.
and they will have abrogated the covenant that I forged with them.
We also see these two parts of the sin in the words of the Prophet Yirmiyahu:
כִּי שְׁתַּיִם רָעוֹת עָשָׂה עַמִּי. אֹתִי עָזְבוּ מְקוֹר מַיִם חַיִּים
לַחְצֹב לָהֶם בֹּארוֹת בֹּארֹת נִשְׁבָּרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָכִלוּ הַמָּיִם.
For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me,
the spring of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2,13)
They have both abandoned G-d and strayed in foreign pastures.
From the above, it would seem that if Israel commits only one part of the sin, this does not yet nullify the covenantal agreement with Hashem. In other words, leaving G-d yet not turning to idol worship, or worshiping both G-d and idols at the same time, should not be considered a nullification of the covenant. Only if Bnei Yisrael commit both parts of the sin – turning away from G- d and worship false gods – would this be considered an actual violation of their covenant with Hashem.
Hashem describes to Moshe the expected punishment for Israel's violation of the brit:
וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם...
I will be very angered at him on that day,
and I will leave them and hide My face from them… (D'varim 31,17)
In other words, just as the sin was two-pronged, so too will be the punishment: Hashem will both "leave them," corresponding to the sin of "they will abandon Me" (D'varim 31,16), and will also "hide His face" - Hester Panim - corresponding to "they will stray after the alien gods of this land" (in the same verse).
It is interesting that the punishment is only that Hashem will "hide His face," and will not simply replace Israel in His covenant with another nation, Heaven forbid. It appears that no matter what Israel does, and even if it seeks out foreign gods, Hashem will not repay them in kind and will not violate His covenant with them. This inference is perfectly clear and unambiguous, and will be declared outright as the prophecy unfolds – as follows:
The Divine "hiding of face" and the accompanying tribulations will lead the Jewish People to draw a despairing and mistaken conclusion, as the above verse continues:
וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת, וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא:
הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה.
Many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day:
Is it not because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us?
They believe that Hashem has totally abandoned them. What is Hashem's response?
וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
I will certainly hide My face on that day,
for all the evil that Israel did in turning to other gods. (verse 18)
We have already heard about the Divine "hiding of the countenance." What new point is the Torah making in this verse?
The Torah is here telling us not what the "hiding" includes, but what it does not entail – namely, Divine detachment. In light of the terrible troubles that are to befall Israel as a result of their sins, they might despair that G-d has decided to totally abandon them and even replace them with another nation. This is a very dangerous error; Israel might then be led to conclude that "not only has Hashem broken His bonds with us, but we, too, are now free to choose our own way and be like the other nations."
Hashem therefore emphasizes, with a verse that might seem redundant, that this thought is totally false, and that He has not detached His links with Israel. We must understand this verse as follows:
I will certainly hide My face – and not more than that, as you might have suspected -
on that day, though I will still remain in your midst,
for all the evil that Israel did in turning to other gods.
Though Israel has turned to other gods, Hashem does not turn to other nations. He is still amongst us. He will "hide His face," but will not "totally turn away His face."
Detachment from the Land
But we can still ask: Why do we say that Israel will be mistaken in assuming that G-d has left them, if He actually said so straight out: ועזבתים, I will leave them (verse 17)!
The answer is rooted in the correct understanding of the term Hester Panim, Hiding of the Divine Countenance. It means that G-d's "face," or His direct providence over Israel, is hidden and non-functional; His providence will be only indirect – not via Eretz Yisrael. How so?
Of all the places in the world, the Land of Israel merited to receive G-d's perpetual supervision, as we read in the Torah:
אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ. תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ,
מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה.
The Land that Hashem your G-d cares about; His eyes are always upon it,
from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. (D'varim 11,12)
If G-d remains in control over the Land, yet hides His face from the Nation, this can mean only one thing: the exile of the Nation from the Land. When Hashem says ועזבתים, I will leave them, He means that they will be detached from the Land of Israel.
This is precisely what the Torah warns us about in Bechukotai: וְהָאָרֶץ תֵּעָזֵב מֵהֶם, "The Land will be detached/abandoned from them." (Vayikra 26,43)
At the same time, the following must also be made clear: When Hashem says He will not supervise Israel directly and will ignore them, the reference is only to supervision involving miracles that bring life, blessing and peace. But a minimal form of Divine supervision over the nation will always continue, even when Israel is exiled to other lands. Hashem will always make sure that Israel will not be totally destroyed, even if He does not lead them with open miracles and special blessings. As we read at the end of the curses in Bechukotai:
וְאַף גַּם זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם, לֹא מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא גְעַלְתִּים
לְכַלֹּתָם לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶם.
Even this: When they are in their enemies' land,
I will not become so disgusted with them that I would destroy them
and break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their G-d. (Vayikra 26,44)
Note the emphasis: Israel's sins, no matter how severe, will not anger G-d to the point that He would destroy them; He still maintains His indirect providence over them.
Showing the amazing extent of Hashem's covenant with Israel, our Sages taught:
"Wherever Israel is exiled, the Divine Presence is exiled with them." (Megillah 29a)
This tells us that when Israel is exiled, Hashem removes His miracles-laden, Eretz Yisrael-style providence, replacing it with a reduced version of providence – one that merely ensures that they will not be destroyed. It can be compared to the minimal bodily functions in effect when a person is sleeping, as opposed to the "all systems go" that apply when he is awake and active. When he is asleep, only vital functions are operative, so that the person remains alive; but when he is conscious, creative and proactive, his bodily systems use up much more "CPU," as it were.
The period of hester panim ended when we returned to the Land of Israel. We see "eye to eye" (Isaiah 52,8) – i.e., very clearly – how the above-board and miraculous Divine Providence has gradually returned, continuing to accompany us every day.
Let us conclude with a beautiful Rabbinic saying that dramatizes very clearly that which is happening to us these very days:
- Chiya Raba and R. Shimon bar Chalafta were walking in the Arbel Valley before dawn and they saw the first signs of the sun's rays beginning to appear on the horizon. R. Chiya Raba turned to R. Shimon and said: "This depicts the Redemption of Israel: It begins little by little, and then gets increasingly greater." (Jerusalem Talmud B'rachot 1,5)