By Shlomo Riskin
“And I will surely hide My face on that day for all the evils which they shall have perpetrated, in that they have turned to other gods.” Deuteronomy 31:18
But how do we narrow the gulf between a hidden God and a revealed God? Why does God choose to hide Himself?
Indeed, one of the thorniest theological issues in Judaism (or any religion) is how to tackle this question of a hidden God or, in more familiar terms, a world which seems absent of God’s goodness and justice, a world in which evil people go unpunished while the good tragically suffer! In his path-breaking work Faith after the Holocaust, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz explores this concept of God’s “hiddenness” as it appears in different contexts in the Torah. I’d like to review these in order to help us attempt a glimpse into the divine notion of justice in this world.
Our biblical text cited above sees a “hidden God” as punishment for abandoning His ways if we sin. God hides Himself, and the more we sin, the more hidden shall the face of God become. This idea of hiddenness as punishment is very logical if we posit the mutuality of the God-human relationship; the Almighty will relate to us in direct proportion to how we relate to Him. If we hide ourselves from Him, estrange ourselves from His ways of compassion and loving-kindness, so will He hide Himself from us, seem to be estranged from our tragedies and suffering.
In this manner we can begin to understand the Prophet Isaiah and the connecting relationship he posits between the God of hiddenness and the God of Salvation: “You are a God who hides Yourself, the God of Israel who brings salvation” (Is. 45:15). Earlier, the prophet declares, “And I shall anxiously await a Lord who hides His face from the House of Judah and I will hopefully anticipate Him” (8:17). Strangely enough Isaiah’s vision calls for redemption and our most anticipated yearnings as emanating from a hidden God. What can this possibly mean?
Fundamental to Jewish theology is the idea that the Almighty created an imperfect, incomplete world, “The Former of light and the Creator of darkness, the Maker of peace and the Creator of evil, I am the Lord who makes all these things” (Is. 45:7). Who will perfect and complete this world? Who will bring the Hidden God out of His hiding place? God’s human partners, created in the divine image; the human being has freedom of choice and a portion of God on High to help him make the right choice and to empower him to enthrone God and enable goodness to reign (see Aleinu, Al Kein prayer after every Amida).
When will this perfection occur? When humanity learns to live in peace, overcome the evil instinct, respect every human as being free and inviolate, and dedicate his/her abilities towards curing disease and solving problems of natural calamities, when all the wicked of the earth will turn to God and His laws. At that time God will become manifest in the world, He and His name will become One, and the world will be perfected under the kingship of the Divine.
And God created such a world because He has full confidence that His creature-partners will eventually repent, repair and perfect humanity and the world! Until this ideal state comes about – God’s face will remain hidden, His glory and goodness will not be totally in evidence.
A story is told about the Spolyer Grandfather, a hasidic master who once came upon children playing hide-and-seek and, when he saw one of the children crying, he stopped and asked, “Why the tears?” The child answered that he’d been hiding for the longest time, but no one had come to look for him. The elderly Jew looked up to heaven and cried out, “Master of the Universe, I know You’re hiding because You want us to find you, but what happens if You continue to remain hidden and Your children stop looking? Before it’s too late, reveal Yourself.” If we could address God as directly and simply as the Spolyer Grandfather, what a huge step we’d be taking towards revealing the “hidden face” of God. It is crucial, however, that we never stop looking for Him – and if we search hard enough, and understand that we must perfect ourselves even as we search for Him, we shall certainly make Him appear. And He promises, through all of our prophets, that at least a faithful remnant will never stop looking, and that we will make Him appear in a perfected and repaired world (Is. 2, Mic. 4).
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.