“I will become very angry at them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be devoured, and plagued by many evils that will distress them, and will say, `Do we not suffer because God has left us?’ ” (Devarim 31:17)
This week’s PERCEPTIONS video can be accessed at: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=3F6A94F387BE70E5
Hester Panim is a commonly used term in the Torah world. Literally, it means “hiding face,” but it refers to concealed Divine Providence, not the lack of it, just the concealment of it. For, a fundamental of fundamentals is that God always runs the world, even recreating it anew each moment. It’s just that, when we merit it, we get to watch Him do it.
Well, not exactly see Him recreate the world each second, but to at least see or sense that He is behind everything. Today, the average person either doesn’t believe in God, or at least doesn’t believe that He is involved in the everyday affairs of man. He lives his life as if God has little if any interest in his life at all, and therefore lives as he sees fit.
Even religious people may have difficulty being real with the reality of God operating on all levels of existence at every moment. They may believe that He is always watching and keeping track of our behavior for the sake of the Final Day of Judgment and Eternal Life, but as far as everyday life is concerned, He has better things to do than actually help or deter man’s daily activities.
One of the fascinating things about Hester Panim is that it does not affect everyone the same way. Indeed, two people can be standing side-by-side, and yet not feel the same level of impact of Hester Panim, one strongly feeling the Presence of God while the other feels and acts as if God is billions of miles away, at least.
This is why Dovid HaMelech can say:
Should you but conceal Your face, I would be confounded. (Tehillim 30:8)
- Conceal not Your Presence from me … (Tehillim 27:9)
both verses implying that God did not conceal Himself from Dovid HaMelech, though He did from others.
This raises the question about the true definition of fear of God. Is fear of God only the basis of a belief that God keeps track of all that we do, and will one day judge us for it, or is one’s sense of Godly involvement in everyday life a part of it as well? In the case of the former, it is easy to forget about God during times of spiritual crisis, but in the case of the latter, it is impossible to forget about God at any time.
With Rosh Hashanah just next week, b”H, this is an important question to address, since our understanding of the concept of Hester Panim determines how reliable we are as people, from God’s perspective. This not only affects out judgment every Rosh Hashanah, but it also affects how intimately God is prepared to work with us in everyday life.
What exactly is Hester Panim?
When it comes to something in the physical world, hiding can be a local thing, or it can be that, for all intents-and-purposes, that which is hidden might as well not exist at all. For example, there is a solution for every problem, but sometimes it remains hidden for generations, and though it may be eventually discovered, its discovery will not help the many generations that are long gone.
But, when it comes to God, hiding can only be a local thing. This is because the entire existence exists within God, and even should it cease to exist, God will always exist. Therefore, by definition, to be aware of anything in Creation is to be aware of God on some level, the only question being, on which level?
For, as it is well known, man possesses both a subconscious mind and a conscious one. As if life wasn’t complicated enough already, as much as we may be aware of at any given moment in time, there are things going on in our minds that we are not cognizant of, even though they affect how we perceive things and our reactions. Psychiatry, a huge and generally lucrative profession, is testimony to that, and it often tries to bridge the very large gap between the subconscious and conscious mind of a person, especially when they are in conflict with one another.
Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that, just prior to birth, an angel teaches us the entire Torah, after which he makes us forget everything by tapping us on the upper lip just before being born (Niddah 30b). What is the point, if we’re going to be born without that knowledge in the end anyhow?
Because, obviously, we are not born without the knowledge, but rather, it remains with us, on a subconscious level. The point of learning Torah, as we have discussed in the past, is to draw that knowledge, idea-by-idea, from the level of the subconscious mind to the conscious mind. And once we do, there is always a sense of, “Ahaaaah,” as if we are merely recalling something we had already known, but simply forgotten.
Outreach, therefore, is not about teaching Torah anew to unaffiliated Jews, but about bringing what they already known on the subconscious level to the conscious mind. The more a person does this, the more attached they feel to the knowledge, and the more they become one with it. Eventually, lifestyle changes because personal perspective has changed, reducing the effect that doubt, and therefore Amalek, can have on the person.
And, all of that knowledge is really just knowledge about God. If it remains on the level of the subconscious, then God remains on the level of the subconscious. As more of the knowledge is brought from the depths of the subconscious to the conscious mind, the more conscious a person becomes of God, and the more he can relate to His reality even on the level of the body.
Hester panim, therefore, is really all in the mind. But, that doesn’t mean that it is imaginary.
In fact, it is like what happened to Pharaoh when God hardened his heart: the result may have been a harder heart, but it was his head that God worked on. For, a person responds to reality based upon his perception of it, and his perceptions are based upon his assumptions about life. If you know what they are, then you can create situations that will compel a person to perceive reality a certain way, and therefore, respond in a particular way. This is what makes conspiracy possible.
Human beings have to work very hard to conspire against people successfully, because they can’t know every last assumption people have about life, and therefore, they cannot dictate every perception they will have. They can only work in a general sense, which is why some people are able to detect conspiracies and break through them.
But, for God, it is a different story. He knows everything and controls everything. He knows exactly how people think and He can manipulate reality completely and perfectly in order to take advantage of people’s assumptions about life, so that they will be compelled to see things as He wants them to. And that is the basis of Hester Panim.
So, for example, if a person’s desire to partake of this physical world overcomes his desire to be close to God, then God will present the world to him in such a way as to make it appear he can have what he wants and not worry about repercussion. He may have to contend with man-made laws and rules, but occasionally, when he gets away with what he has taken illicitly, it will truly seem as if he succeeded.
And, if people come to worship science as a religion of agnosticism, using it to question the existence of God or His involvement in Creation and history, then the world will appear scientifically in such a way as to feed such people’s assumptions about the physical world. As the prophet warned:
- For the ways of God are straight; the righteous walk in them and sinners will stumble over them. (Hoshea 14:10)
How do two people walk the same path with dramatically different results? It must be that one sees safety where the other sees danger, benefit where the other sees loss, potential gratification where the other sees misery, and when it comes to Hester Panim, one sees randomness where the other sees Divine genius. It must be that the two of them have two different sets of assumptions about life.
Taking advantage of people’s mistaken assumptions about life and about God within it is what Amalek does best. As Rashi points out, he divides the Name of God, but as Kabbalah explains, that means that he makes life appear Godless to those who can be duped. That is why the Torah says about Amalek:
- He confronted you on your way, and attacked the feeble stragglers who trailed behind you, while you were tired and exhausted. He did not fear God. (Devarim 25:18)
Feeble, but not physically feeble, but spiritually so. They were the ones who could be impressed, or intimidated by Amalek’s smoke-and-mirror’s routine, because they had not done their homework to spiritually inoculate themselves against Amalek’s psychological attack. To such intellectual stragglers, God seemed distant at the time, at best.
The good news is that, if Hester Panim is a matter of the mind, then man can work with that. If when God hid Himself he really hid from everyone equally, and not just in the recesses our mind, then righteous and evil alike would have to live with the same spiritual reality, though the former would trudge forward spiritually like loyal soldiers, learning Torah and performing the mitzvos because that is what Torah-Jews do, rain or shine.
In fact, sadly, that is the way many Torah-Jews live today, leaving God hidden on other, deeper levels of consciousness. I’m not talking about people who sin as if God is not watching, for that is not being a Torah Jew, even if, on the outside, they look like one. Everyone has their weaknesses, and people who believe that Torah came from Sinai are no different. However, they have a tougher time giving into weakness, and if and when they do, they know that they have to do teshuvah for it.
But imagine sneaking up on some close friends, who happen to be waiting for you, and not knowing that you are in the room, they talk about you. To your delight, they have only good things to say, but not knowing that you are in the room, they do not connect to you the same way as they normally do when you are before them. Indeed, if you remain hidden long enough, eventually they are bound to forget about you.
The same thing is true about many Torah Jews who do everything they can to do the will of God, but connect to Him as if He is not in the “room.” Their loyalty to God and His Torah, “in the meantime” is admirable, but their sense of His Being is lacking, evident by the lack of enthusiasm they have in general, and when performing mitzvos specifically. Though they would never willing transgress the will of God, they don’t show the proper enthusiasm when observing it.
That was what Dovid HaMelech wanted to avoid. He wanted to feel the Presence of God wherever he went, as if he was in the House of God seven days a week, 24 hours a day. On Rosh Hashanah, we are evaluated for how hard we tried to make this reality our own, and rewarded for how successful we were, by having an even greater experience of Shechinah – Divine Presence – in the upcoming year.
Last week, I had an interesting experience. I was called up for an aliyah, after which I stood to the side while the next person, called up after me, had the Torah read to him. As is my practice, I held on to the top of the Aitz Chaim closest to me, while following in the Sefer Torah as it was read (as opposed to in a Chumash). I love looking into a Sefer Torah.
However, this time, as the one reading continued, it began to occur to me how fortunate I was to be there, that I believed in Torah, and that I was able to live by it. I felt so fortunate to be part of a minority of people in the world today who know that Torah comes from God via Mt. Sinai and Moshe Rabbeinu, and some tears began, on their own, to well up in my eyes. And, for that brief moment, I had a tremendous feeling of Shechinah.
When I thought about the experience later, I was amazed at how intense a moment I was able to create by a single thought, albeit at the right time in the right place. I was amazed at how easily Hester Panim can be turned on or off, controlled by what a person believes and thinks about in life. Perhaps it was a moment that was made possible because it is Elul Zman, when God comes closer to us, but it is an insight that I have resolved to try and implement the rest of the year as well, starting, God willing, with this Rosh Hashanah.
Wishing all of you and your families a happy and healthy new year, filled with only good things. Thanks for reading. Kesivah v’chasimah tovah.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org