Now You See Them… 1
It doesn’t seem quite fair. The tochechah of Ki Savo relates the bitter consequences of failing to obey Hashem’s commandments. Parshas Nitzavim provides a shorter, different version of the consequences of our disobedience. The road to recovery, we would think, would begin with our national recognition that by driving away the Shechinah through our misdeeds, we bring our tragic circumstances upon ourselves.
That is not the way the Torah sees it, however. “It [the people] will say on that day, �??Is it not because by G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?’ But I will surely conceal my face on that day…” 2 Why does Klal Yisrael’s painful and honest recognition of its sin lead to even greater concealment of Hashem’s presence than before? (The verb “conceal” is doubled in the Hebrew text, a sure sign that the Torah wants us to get the message loud and clear.)
Ramban tackles the difficulty. Klal Yisrael’s recognition of their sin does not amount to full confession and repentance, explains the Ramban. Hashem continues to hide Himself so that Klal Yisrael will advance beyond regret for having sinned to point of genuine teshuvah.
Ramban may reflect the Rambam’s position on vidui. At the very beginning of Hilchos Teshuvah, Rambam writes, “There is one prescriptive mitzvah within teshuvah. When a person does teshuvah and repents of his sin, he is obligated to confess before Hashem. How does he perform vidui? He says…I have sinned before You….I regret and am ashamed of my actions, and I will never return to them again.” This strongly implies that vidui contains two elements: regret over the past, and a promise not to repeat the offense. The latter element is not apparent by inspection of the pasuk which teaches us about vidui: “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their fathers.”3 We see that Rambam understood vidui to be more than a formulaic recitation of sins committed. It is an expression of remorse for improper conduct. The measure of that remorse is the commitment not to repeat the offense. If a person has not fully convinced himself that he is beyond repeating the offending action, he simply does not regret his past enough, and his remorse and vidui are insufficient.
We might try our hand at some other approaches to the Ramban’s question. One of the masters of Slonim argued that Klal Yisrael’s remorse in our pasuk is flawed. They rue their fate, and attribute it to Hashem’s taking leave of them. In other words, the effect is the dire straits in which they find themselves; the cause is the departure of the Shechinah from their midst. This response, however, is un-Jewish. The effect should pale by comparison to the cause! A proper Jew will find nothing more horrific than the thought that Hashem has withdrawn and made Himself more remote!
We might propose another explanation. Every Jew is obligated to believe that no barrier, no matter how formidable, really bars his connection to Hashem. He must see himself as a “portion of Hashem Above;” nothing can firmly separate him from his Source. He must see times of apparent separation in much the same way that a father will sometimes hide from his young son, to test his reaction. The father may be nowhere to be seen or found – but in fact watches quite well over his child, and is prepared to jump into action to protect him from any mishap. The wise child senses that, even when he cannot find his father. Our teacher from Kobrin emphasized many times that a Jew who cannot pour his heart out to Hashem even after having violated the most serious transgression in the Torah has not treaded upon the threshold of chassidus. He then added that such a person has not stepped upon the threshold of Judaism!
Life is an unending sequence of tests. The greatest of them is when it seems that Hashem has turned away from us. When a person senses the closeness of Hashem, anything can be endured. The Ba’al Shem Tov offered a famous mashal to a king possessed of magical powers. With those powers, he created illusory barriers and walls. He created many layers of these barriers, each within the next. Between them, he created fearsome but equally illusory deterrents to people who might try to scale the walls. Such a person would be confronted by awesome and savage animals, and hazardous bodies of water. The king himself was an exalted individual, whose presence illuminated his kingdom, and made it attractive for his subjects to seek him out.
The king proclaimed that all who came to him could expect all sorts of honor and riches. Many tried. Even those who got beyond one set of barriers were faced by other, more challenging ones. All of these, of course, were not real, but simply visions magically produced.
The king’s son would not be deterred. Full of love for his father, he pushes on beyond his limitations, crying out, “Why have you abandoned me?” The king is moved by the devotion and extraordinary efforts of his son. He removes the illusory walls and barriers. The son looks about, and realizes that there never were any real barriers between himself and his father in the first place. Approaching his father, he asks him why he shut him out of the king’s presence. The king answers, “My beloved son! I never intended to distance you. I did what I did only in order to test your dedication.”
This mashal is a wonderful allegory to the life of a Jew. So often there seem to be obstacles for us to surmount – obstacles that interfere with our connection to Hashem. They present themselves as strong desires, as chronic character flaws, as overwhelming responsibilities that drain our time and remove us from spiritual pursuits. None is as potent and damaging as the assumption we sometimes make that we are estranged from our Creator. The Saba Kadisha warns that the yetzer hora choicest quarry is not the aveirah that it seduces us into committing. Far more important than the commission of the sin is the attitude such sin often produces in us – the feeling that we have crossed an all-important line, and are now fully distanced from Hashem. When we believe this lie, it becomes true! By convincing ourselves of this untruth, we then go on to live the prophecy, and look – accurately! – towards lives with an attenuated connection to the Divine.
The dire prediction in our parshah can be readily understood. “The people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land….My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them, and I will conceal My face from them….It will say on that day, �??Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?'””4 The worst of the aveirah is the impact it has upon us, our conviction that we have been essentially abandoned by G-d. Any forsaking is only concealment of His face – not of His essence! The barriers that seem so stern and foreboding are smoke-screens. They are illusions, phantoms. There is nothing there.
By concluding that “my G-d is not in my midst” we heap sin upon sin. Instead of repenting from our aveiros, we conclude that Hashem has left us – something that simply does not happen. In turn, Hashem hides His face from us to an even greater degree – for the sin itself, now compounded by the sin of our unwarranted despair.
This, then is the challenge of the Yomim Nora’im. It is true that we must face up to the grim reality of our deeds and misdeeds, and fully understand the gravity of our sins. At the same time, we must keep in mind that no barrier can separate us from our Heavenly Father. A Jew is never lost. The Divine promise of “You are children” 5 to Hashem is eternal and immutable.
1Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 209-212
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org