The Meaning of Hester Panim

In Parshat Vayeilech, God tells Moshe that He will hide His presence from the Jewish people when we sin:

The LORD said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. (Devarim 31:16-18)

Rashi explains that this means that God will act as if He does not see the distress of the Jewish people while bad things are happening to us. Ordinarily, when bad things happen to the Jewish people, God comes to our rescue. However, when we forsake the covenant, bad things will happen to us and God will not come to our rescue. The hiding of God’s presence therefore causes, or at the very least facilitates, bad things to happen.

The Bechor Shor has a different approach. The Bechor Shor writes that God hides His presence because He can not bear to see His people in pain. It is an act of love and compassion, not a punishment. Similar to a father who does not want to watch as his son is being disciplined, God does not want to see our suffering. According to this idea of the Bechor Shor, the hiding of God’s presence is not what causes the bad things, rather it is the way in which God “copes” with the pain.

Very often, we tend to view exile and the distancing of God’s presence as a form of punishment. We sin, God pushes us away, and as a result bad things happen to us. The Bechor Shor provides a new understanding. When we sin, God distances Himself because he cannot bear to see us in such an aggravated state. He can not bear to see His children in pain.

We should be so fortunate to have as much compassion for ourselves as God has for us. If we were pained as much as God is, we would be compelled to rectify our situation and return to a life of Torah!