Do you remember the following experiment from introductory psychology classes in college? Place a brightly colored object in front of a baby’s face. He or she will of course light up and, given sufficient dexterity, will reach out and grab for the object. Then, place a piece of cardboard in front of the object so that the baby can no longer see it. Before the age of about 18-24 months, the child will quickly lose interest, because he or she thinks that it is no longer there, or was never there to begin with. From about two years of age onward, the child will begin to look for the object, perhaps even growing sad, restless and whiny when he or she cannot find it.
This phenomenon is known as object permanence: the cognitive ability to hold the presence of an object in your memory and figure out where it may have gone when it is no longer in your sight. Object permanence is the reason why young children at a certain age love the game “Peek-A-Boo”: when I hide my face from the child with whom I am playing, that child knows I am still there behind my hands, and is eagerly anticipating my return. The psychologist, Jean Piaget called this earliest stage at which object permanence develops, the sensorimotor stage. From ages 0-2, we are trying to figure out the relationship between ourselves, our bodies, and the world around us. We begin life egocentrically, not understanding that we and the world are not the same thing, and that it does not revolve around us. As we grow older, we recognize that the world and its objects are separate from us, and that just because we do not see something does not mean it is not there.
I always think about object permanence during the high holiday season, especially when we read the double Torah portion, Nitzavim-VaYelekh. It contains the troubling idea of hastarat panim, the hiding of God’s face, which is also found in psalm 27, the psalm for the high holidays. In Deuteronomy 31, after Moses warns the Israelites about the consequences for violating the covenant, God tells him:
…my anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from 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 face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.
Some Torah commentators, like Rashi, say that God is threatening to ignore the people and to refrain from watching over them. Others, like the Targumim (the early interpretive Torah translations in Aramaic) say that God is threatening to literally remove God’s presence from the people. The first interpretation focuses on the psychological dimensions of God’s absence: the feeling that we are abandoned. The second focuses on the ontological – or spiritual – dimensions of God’s absence: the reality of God abandoning us. Whatever the hiding of God’s face means in the Torah, it is clearly seen as a form punishment for the Israelites’ behavior. Psalm 27 approaches the hiding of God’s face differently. After writing that God literally hides him in the hiddenness of God’s tent from his enemies (yastireini b’seiter ohalo), the psalmist turns to God with plaintive desperation:
To you my heart says, ‘Seek my face!’ O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help, do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.
For the psalmist, God’s hiding of God’s face is a source of terror, the adult spiritual equivalent of a child experiencing the most primitive separation anxiety when his or her parent walks away. Though God is described as being angry, the psalmist presents no clear morally causal reason for the hiding of God’s face that could be traced to the psalmist’s behavior. After all, the psalmist is called God’s servant, which is not exactly a term for someone who has sinned against God.
Whichever of these interpretations for understanding hastarat panim we connect with, there is one more aspect of this concept that the idea of object permanence can help us to clarify. Implicit in both of these scriptural passages is that the hiding of God’s face is real and effective because we experience it as real. Paradoxically, we are bereft and terrified at God’s hiddenness precisely because, similar to the child who has learned object permanence, we yearn for God to always be there behind the hiddenness. In fact, unlike the infant who loses interest in the bright object behind a screen, we know that God is there, even as we desperately seek to coax God out of hiding.
Whether we do wrong, thus alienating ourselves from God, or our undeserved suffering and hardship make us feel pushed away from the divine presence, God is still there, always waiting with love, patience, and compassion. Our fluid perceptions of God’s presence and absence are the result of our many life experiences. Hopefully we can grow a deeper sense of God’s permanent presence that lies just beneath those perceptions, reminding us that God’s face is never hidden from us for long. Shanah tovah.