At the beginning of parshat nitzavim-vayelkh, God renews the covenant with his people. The covenant will be binding, not only for those who are standing before God (nitzavim kulchem lifnei Adonai), but also for those who are to be born in the future:
And not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath but with him who is here standing with us this day before the LORD our God and with him who is not here with us this day (Deut 29: 13-14).
However, should there be anyone who turns away from the LORD to worship other Gods, and thinks he or she is protected by the covenant, the Lord’s wrath will rain on them from the heavens:
The LORD shall not want to forgive him, for then shall the LORD’s wrath and His jealousy smolder against that man, and all the oath that is written in this book shall come down upon him, and the LORD shall wipe out his name from under the heavens. And the LORD shall divide him off for evil from all the tribes of Israel according to all the oaths of the Covenant written in this book of teaching….And the LORD’s wrath flared against that land to bring upon it all the curse written in this book. And the LORD tore them from upon their soil in wrath and in anger and in great fury and flung them into another land as on this day (Deut 29:19-20; 26-27).
This passage is followed by an enigmatic phrase (verse 28):
Things hidden are for the LORD our God and things revealed for us and for our children forever to do all the words of this teaching.
Much interpretation has gone into understanding what the “hidden” (ha-nistarot) or concealed acts are that God is concerned with. Some of these interpretations include God’s punishment to us for sins that we have committed (or even thought about committing) and that only we know about. From a theological standpoint, this could help us understand why the “innocent” person is being afflicted with illness. God is, in Orwellian terms, the Big Brother of 1984, who is watching us, or in today’s parlance the ubiquitous surveillance cameras on every street corner.
Now I don’t have to remind anyone that this is the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana and fittingly the next chapter focuses on the rewards we will have if we remain faithful to God and choose life and faithfulness to Him:
Life and death I set before you, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life so that you may live, you and your seed. To love the LORD your God, to heed His voice, and to cling to Him, for He is your life and your length of days to dwell on the soil which the LORD your God swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them” (Deut 30:19-20).
After God tells all of this to Moses, he lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is not to enter the promised land, and that Joshua will be the leader instead of him. The words hazak ve-ematz repeat themselves: “Be strong and stalwart” (Deut 31:6-7) and are used to encourage both the nation, perhaps in the face of new leadership as well as the enemies they will face in the new land, and also to Joshua to give him courage. Of course, as usual the people will sin and go whoring after other Gods and because of this God will again get angry with the people:
And My wrath will flare against them on that day, and I shall forsake them and hide My face from them (histarti), and they will become fodder, and many evils and troubles will find them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is not in our midst that these evils have found us?’ And as for Me, I will surely hide My face (haster astir) on that day for all the evil that they have done, for they turned to other gods (Deut. 31:17-18).
The double parsha concludes with Moses completing the writing of the torah and telling the people about his death and leaving behind the song of Ha’azinu which will be reading in two weeks (and also in the Mincha service of Rosh Hashana).
We live in a time of hester panim—God’s hiding from us. As we move into Rosh Hashana when we hope to turn over a new leaf; start new calendars and diaries, we get this strange message in the Torah that NO MATTER WHAT WE DO, it is ordained that we will sin and that God is going to hide himself from us. Even if we have just been contemplating sin, God knows and accounts this to us as if we have actually sinned. In Jimmy Carter’s famous words, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” But it is easier to explain that we are at fault, rather than say that punishment is just random or without meaning. After all, we comfort ourselves that “God only punishes the evil person”, and if we lust after the forbidden fruit, we are evil and thus get our just deserts (pun intended).
But the second set of God’s hiding his face is more scary. If we are doomed to perpetually be sinning, whether in action or in our thoughts, God will not be there to pick up the pieces. What this means (perhaps) is that it is time to take responsibility for our actions and clean up the mess that we have created in the world. The “how to do it” is of course the burning issue. But right now, the leaders of the so-called democracies seem to be blaming others for pollution, disease, corruption, economic inequality, racism etc. (you name it), rather than take responsibility for these problems. There is no guarantee that if we collectively own up to our sins and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, that God will reappear, but, it’s a start. And that’s all we can do as we enter a NEW Year.
hazak ve-ematz: LET’S BE STRONG AND RESOLUTE!