Pinny Arnon

Unconditional Love

What is the nature of our relationship with God? Does He love us unconditionally, or is His love for us dependent on our strict obedience to His will? In this week’s parsha, “Bechukosai,” there is an answer to this question hidden in the text that may not only surprise us, but it may completely alter the way we think of ourselves and our place in the creation.

At the open of the parsha, God promises to reward us if we walk in His ways, and then He lays out a lengthy list of punishments that will result if we choose to violate His will. This seems to imply a clear conditionality in our relationship. The litany of penalties, known as the “tochacha/rebuke” begins as follows:

:וְאִם־לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל־הַמִּצְות הָאֵלֶּה
V’im lo tishmiu li v’lo taasu es kol hamitzvos ha’eileh.
If you will not listen to Me and you will not fulfill all of these commandments.
(Leviticus 26:14 – 15)

Yet the ensuing consequences are preceded by a very strange verse:

:וְנָֽתַתִּי פָנַי בָּכֶם וְנִגַּפְתֶּם לִפְנֵי אֹֽיְבֵיכֶם
V’nasati panai bachem v’nigaftem lifnei oyveichem.
I will set My attention against you, and you will be smitten before your enemies.
(Leviticus 26:17)

What is odd about this statement is the literal translation of the Hebrew words. Though the first phrase is commonly rendered, “I will set My attention against you,” the literal meaning of the words “v’nasati panai bachem” is, “and I placed my face in you.” This language confounds the Sages. How is it that God’s ‘placing His face in us’ is a punishment for our disobedience?

The Maharal, in his classical commentary Gur Aryeh, points out in response to this anomaly that the expression “God’s face” is always positive. “Kol ‘panim’ hu l’tova/all reference to God’s face is for the good,” he asserts. Therefore, he changes the word “פָנַי/panai,” which means “my face,” to “פְּנַאי/pinai,” which means “my attention.” As such, he explains the verse to mean “I will set my attention against you,” as it is commonly understood. Rashi, the primary expositor of the Torah’s plain meaning, concurs with the Maharal’s suggestion that the intention of the verse is that God will focus His attention on those who transgress His will. He adds that the word “פׇּנַי/panai/my face” also shares the root of “פּוֹנֶה/poneh” which means “to turn.” The verse, according to Rashi, is thus indicating that God will turn (פּוֹנֶה) His attention (פְּנַאי) to those who disobey Him in order to punish their misdeeds.

While these interpretations suit the context, they rely on a maneuvering of the language in order to do so, and they do not address the text’s literal meaning. They fail to do so because the literal translation of the words provides us an insight that goes far beyond the surface of the Torah to its very depths. Rashi establishes early on in his commentary on the Torah that his purpose is only to explain the simple level of the text:

.וַאֲנִי לֺא בׇאתִי אֶלׇא לִפְשוּטוֹ שֶל מִקְרׇא
V’ani lo basi elah l’pshuto shel mikra.
I have come only [to teach] the pshat/simple meaning of Scripture.
(Rashi on Genesis 3:8)

While Rashi’s intent is only to explain the surface layer of the Torah and not its deeper mystic implications, the verse itself reveals a “sod/secret” that is mind-blowingly profound. As we saw from the Gur Aryeh above, “all reference to God’s face is for the good.” Therefore, if we do not change the word from “פׇּנַי/panai/my face” to “פְּנַאי/pinai/my attention,” and we read the verse precisely as God Himself actually wrote it, then we realize that even when one transgresses God’s will, He still “places my face in you.” This brings us to the shocking and counterintuitive conclusion that ultimately, even our negative actions will bring us positive results!

The illogic and seeming injustice of such a conclusion is what led the Sages to alter the language for the sake of the simple understanding. However, the deeper truth is that God, at His essential level, is not compelled by logic or motivated strictly by justice. It is true that within the realm of “pshat” and the limited structure of the “olam/world” in which we live, logic and justice are paramount. However, beyond this realm of “helam/hiddenness,” when God’s essential nature is revealed, His love, forgiveness and unity transcend the rules of reason and judgment. At such a level, whether we go in God’s ways or we turn away from His commandments, ultimately His response is the same! Either way, “וְנָֽתַתִּי פָנַי בָּכֶם/v’nasati panai bachem,” He has placed His face within us. Regardless of our actions and our conduct, we are Godly at our core and nothing can change that!

It is essential to state that this deepest of mystic truths does not negate the fact that there are laws and consequences for our actions within this temporal realm in which we currently exist. Yet it means that in our ultimate reality, all of these distinctions and repercussions cease to exist. God’s love for us is not dependent on our compliance. He “turns” to us, and “faces” us regardless of our conduct. He cannot help but face us because His “panim/face” is lodged in our “pnimyus/core.” The only real question is whether we are facing Him or turning away – whether we are conscious of His love and unity, and thus responding to it with love, or we are unaware of His existence at the base of our existence, and therefore turning away from Him to pursue other avenues that we mistakenly believe to be in our best interest.

Excerpted from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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