Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

Seeing is believing?

What is faith in a generation that doesn’t see God split the sea? What is faith for a generation that didn’t witness the giving of the Torah? The Manna from Heaven? What is faith during Hester Panim – a time when God’s face is hidden? What is faith today?

In the Torah portions of Va’etchanan, Eikev and Re’eh, Moshe uses many phrases to describe how we should perceive/experience the Divine:

Deuteronomy 4:3 – You saw with your own eyes what the LORD did in the matter of Baal-peor, that the LORD your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Baal-peor;

Deuteronomy 4:5See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the LORD my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

Deuteronomy 4:27-28 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. But if you search there for the LORD your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul

The sensory experience of mighty powers, how we ‘see’, and ‘feel’ God is a major theme of the final words of Moshe recorded in Sefer Devarim.

At the beginning of Eikevwe are encouraged to listen to “these rules”, and God in return will remember the love for, and commitment he made to our ancestors. Many of those who offer commentary on this verse (Rashi & Daat Zekeinim for example) focus in on explaining the difficult-to-understand word ‘Eikev‘. In his translation of the Torah (i.e. The Purple Chumash), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan seems to brush off the focus on the word Eikev (though he does insert a lengthy footnote on its translation), bringing into focus another word in the verse: תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן – ‘if you listen’.

If the act of listening becomes the most important word in the verse, then the understanding of the nature of experiencing God changes:

What if the goal is not to ‘see God’ but to ‘hear God’?

It is a natural desire for us to want to ‘see’ God. Even Moshe himself requests to see God but is told that it isn’t possible for a human to see God and live. If our goal is to see God in this world, we may be left disappointed. Fundamentally, our verse is saying that seeing if not believing but rather hearing is. The instruction in our verse is for us to become more attentive listeners, to be an active and engaged audience with the Torah and its values. Our goal is to hear the quiet, and resolute voice in the great hubbub of this busy and noisy world – the kol demama daka -.

While Shuls are gathering for Tefillah, the services they currently offer are limited and adjusted in their ability to impact. While the ability to fulfill any obligations towards communal Tefillah has returned, the opportunities to connect with each other, to socialize and see our fellow community members has not returned. In two ways the ability to ‘see each other’ is limited: Firstly, there are plenty who have not returned to Shul, for legitimate reasons and, secondly, with regards to those who have come back, the pandemic has created social distance between us.

The act of listening must define the weeks and months ahead.

Exile is described as a time of hester panim, a time when God’s face is hidden. If there is one thing we have learned about mask wearing, it is that it is hard to hear what another is saying when they are wearing a mask. What if hester panim is more about the difficulties hearing God’s voice, rather than the inability to see God’s face?

As each of us consider our spiritual engagements in the coming days, the High Holidays will drive home the point that we cannot really see each other during this difficult, and challenging times. For this reason we must focus on our ability to connect by (pro)actively listening to each other. 

The opening verse of Eikev guides us to listen carefully to the messages of the Torah. Through our listening, God’s love for us increases, He becomes reminiscent of our ancestors who were so so so good at listening. As shuls across the world struggle with offering meaningful, and safe services during Judaism’s most busy season, let us commit to defining these Holy days through the act of listening to each other, to the Shofar and to the inner voice within each of us, seeking a deeper connection with the Jewish people, and God.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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