Lecture #18a: Esh Kodesh II – On Faith and Suffering

  • Rav Tamir Granot

A.        Hester Panim


In the previous lecture, we saw that the Rebbe of Piaseczno continues to seek God's closeness; he is not prepared to remove God from the world.  If I have spent my life believing and experiencing that "there is no place that is devoid of Him," then I must seek God even in the darkest corners of the ghetto.  Indeed, the Rebbe does not subscribe to the generally accepted understanding of hester panim (the "hiding of God's face").  There is, in truth, no such thing as God being removed from the world.  And in any case – could we truly explain the Holocaust by asserting that God "hid His face"? Does God shed all responsibility when He decides to hide His face and thereby punish His children? Does our expectation that the punishment be proportionate to the sin, and that the suffering have some constructive result, fall away simply because we believe that God has hidden His face?


The idea of "hester panim" that is embedded in our tradition is not an objective concept, but rather a subjective experience.  In other words, a person experiences hester panim when he, in his own consciousness, banishes God from his reality:


A Jew must believe and perceive that everything happens at the nod of God, and that the Holy Blessed One does not execute judgment without justice, God forbid.  This is fundamental.  It is one of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith, enumerated by Maimonides in his commentary on the mishna (Sanhedrin 10:1): "I believe without a doubt that the Creator, blessed be His name, rewards those who observe His commandments and punishes those who violate them."  Besides this, it is also a source of strength and joy in times of suffering, as is written in the Tanya: "If a person, while in pain, acknowledges his sins (because everyone knows the blemishes of his own heart) and sees why this particular punishment was justly dealt him, he will not complain, God forbid.  On the contrary, he will assume that just as God has punished him, so will He nurture him when he repents of his sins, and like a father reconciling with his son, God will comfort him.  In these reflections, a person may take courage and joy."


Aside from that, sufferings are hester panim, concealment of the Divine Face.  When a person perceives within his suffering the Hand of God, and His justice and truth, he abolishes the hester (concealment).  He reveals God even out of the hester and denim (judgments).  Then, as the concealment evaporates, it becomes chesed (loving-kindness), which reveals the Divine Light that is the Face of God.


How could we ever have said that the pain concealed God's Face? Not only does God say (Tehillim 91:15), "I am in pain with him," but God, blessed by He, endures the brunt of our pain.  On the contrary, it is the person who does not accept suffering with acquiescence, God forbid, and thinks that his suffering is unjustified, God forbid, who creates the concealment.  It is as if, God forbid, he was doing away with God, as it were.


That is why God says, "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse…a blessing if you obey…and a curse if you do not obey…"  He is showing us the justice and truth in all things - the blessing if you obey and the curse if you do not.  The result of this perception will be "Behold, I set before you this day" for you will see that it is "I Who am set before you."  God, blessed be he, is giving Himself, as it were, to us, and so this becomes a revelation of God, Himself, to us.


Furthermore, it is specifically now - in the month of Elul, marking the start of the days of din (judgment)-that we say, "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine."


(Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, translated by J.H. Worch [Northvale, 2000], pp. 210-211)


At first, it sounds as though the Rebbe is going to justify the suffering on the basis of our sins, but this is not his main intention.  He does not seek to discuss the significance of the Holocaust in the overall sense, but rather the manner in which a Jew should address the suffering that he himself is experiencing.  The recognition that the suffering is not arbitrary, that it is deliberate and precise, does ultimately provide some consolation. Beyond the suffering in the present, I believe in God's goodness and in that fact that His punishments are like those meted out by a father to his son; this being the case, He will certainly have mercy.


However, this does not yet capture the essential message of this teaching.  In the second paragraph, the Rebbe asserts that the suffering is hester panim, but at the beginning of the third paragraph he negates this possibility out of hand.  This suggests that by identifying suffering with hester panim he does not mean that God is not with us, but rather that He turns His face away such that He does not see our troubles, as it were, and therefore does not protect us.  A wholehearted acceptance of suffering reveals the positive root of suffering – the love that is at its foundation.  If I believe that the suffering is devoid of justice or id just revenge, heaven forefend, then I myself am creating hester panim, because in my consciousness God is turning away His face; He is not interested in me.  By accusing Him, I am distancing Him.  But if a person accepts the suffering and sees God's hand within it, then he is removing the hiddenness; for even when God slaps my face, I see before me the image of a Father, and the pain of the suffering is lessened by this revelation of the face of God.


At this stage, the Rebbe tackles the idea that suffering is hester panim. When we are suffering, God is unquestionably suffering with us.  The faith in God's full presence and His closeness to us means that He does not observe what goes on "from outside," but rather everything that happens is also happening to Him, in a certain sense.  And if God is suffering just as we are suffering, then how can we say that He is hiding His face? Thus, the hiding of God's face is a concept that can exist only from the point of view of the observer; there is no objective hiding of God's face on the part of God Himself.


The assumption that God is suffering along with us is another expression of that same intimacy in suffering that we encountered in the description of the Divine weeping in the previous lecture.  When a father strikes, he weeps; a father who strikes his son is also, at the same time, striking himself.


It should further be noted that the call to accept suffering is not a justification of the suffering.  When I accept God's blows with love, I am not thereby declaring that I understand Him; I do not make such an assertion even by observing from the outside.  I am simply telling myself that I trust in my Father, in His goodness, in His love for me, and therefore even if the pain is horrific, and even if I do not understand it, it comes from Him – and justly.  This acceptance of what is happening to me can also bring about a process of repairing oneself – and indeed, the sermon cited above was delivered in the month of Elul.  More importantly, though, and more immediately, this acceptance brings one closer to God.


B.        Rabbinical sources for the theology of Divine sorrow and suffering


There are undoubtedly many sources supporting the Rebbe of Piaseczno's assertions concerning God's sorrow and His sharing in our suffering, but I believe that the heart of this theology is to be found in the teachings of Chazal; I find it difficult to imagine any verse from Tanakh expressing such a view.  In Tanakh, God is angry, or compassionate, or forgiving, even comforting – but not suffering.  Why? Perhaps because suffering is a passive expression of weakness; it is not an active response to reality.  Even the desecration of God's Name that is described in the Torah and by the prophets does not cause anguish or suffering to God; it is a religious problem that causes God to act.  Chazal, however, lift many verses out of their literal context and meaning and interpret them as describing God's anguish and suffering.  Below we shall examine some examples. 


In the mishna describing the fulfillment of the commandment concerning the arava (willow branches) in the Temple, there is a debate among the Tannaim:


Each day they circle the altar once, and declare, "We pray you, Lord, please save (ana Hashem hoshi'a na); we pray you, Lord, please give us success" (Tehillim 118:25).  Rabbi Yehuda said: (They say,) "I and He (ani ve-hu) – please save; I and He – please save." (Sukka 4:5)


According to the Tanna in the mishna, we pray for God to save us, using the familiar formula from the prayer service: "We pray You, Lord" (ana Hashem).  The proximity to the altar reflects the seeking of closeness to God and our hope that He should hear and save.  Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, maintains that God is not only the addressee of our prayers but also one of its subjects; we pray for His (own) salvation along with ours: "Lord, please save (appeal in the second person – to Him) me and Him (i.e., God)."  While the Tanna narrator maintains the classic formula from Sefer Tehillim, Rabbi Yehuda chooses to create a new prayer formula, with no source in the biblical prayers, reflecting God's need for salvation at the same time, as it were.  According to his view, the proximity to the altar during these prayers arises also from the desire to pray for the One Whose glory is revealed upon the altar.


Different versions of the mishna have apparently attempted to dismantle the theological implications of Rabbi Yehuda's approach.  The Rambam (as well as the Yemenite manuscript of the Talmud Bavli) cites his formula as "ani hu" (I am He), without the conjunctive 'vav,' and explains, in accordance with this formulation, that this is an appeal to God, Who declares concerning Himself, "See now that I – I am He" (Devarim 32:39).  Rashi, along with many other versions, renders the appeal "ani va-ho" (without the "alef" at the end), and interprets the opaque "va-ho" as a name for God or as a corruption or abbreviation of one of His Names, thus leaving the meaning close to that of the formula of the narrating Tanna: "He Who is called 'ani va-ho' – save us, we pray You." Many editions of the siddur adopt this version – 'ani va-ho' – in the Hoshanot prayers; some note the dispute concerning the proper formula.  In any event, from the discussion in the Talmud Yerushalmi and from better-quality manuscripts of the mishna (such as MS Kaufmann), it is clear that the authentic version is "ani ve-hu" (I and Him).


The discussion in the Yerushalmi concerning this mishna cites several sources to support Rabbi Yehuda's new formula:


Rabbi Abahu said: "U-lekha li-yeshu'ata lanu" (Tehillim 80:3) – Our salvation is [also] Your salvation.


Rabbi Ba Sarongia expounded: "And God will save (ve-hoshia) the tents of Yehuda first" (Zekharia 12:7) – but it is written, "ve-hosha" [the 'yud' is omitted, hinting that the verb here is not a transitive one, indicating salvation of others, but rather an intransitive verb calling, as it were, for God to save Himself].


Rabbi Zikiye expounded: "For now you shall come out of the city and you shall dwell (ve-shakhant) in the field" (Mikha 4:10) – [hinting,] "and My Presence (u-shekhinati) shall be in the field" [i.e., God will be exiled along with His people].


Chanania, nephew of Rabbi Yehoshua, said: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 20:2) – but it is written, "hotzeitekha" [the message that is derived here is based on the same idea as in "ve-hosha" – as though God is saying, "I brought Myself out."  This is based on a text that, unlike our text of the Torah, lacks the letter yod in hotzeitikha.]


Rabbi Berakhia (and) Rabbi Yirmiya, in the name of Rabbi Chiya bar Ba, expound in the name of Levi bar Sisi in Neharde'a: "And they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was a kind of paved work of sapphire stone, and it was as clear as the very heavens" (Shemot 24:10) – this was while they were not yet redeemed.  After they were redeemed, stone remains where it belongs.  [I.e., there is no stone in heaven; the image of the sapphire stone in heaven reflected what was happening down below.  Since Bnei Yisrael were enslaved with "mortar and bricks," therefore the image of God reflected that reality.] …


Rabbi Akiva said: … "Which You redeemed for Yourself (padita lekha) from Egypt" (II Shmuel 7:23) – hinting, as it were, "You redeemed Yourself."  (Yerushalmi, Sukka 4:3)


All of these teachings detach the relevant phrases from their simple meaning in order to convey the idea that God, too, requires salvation; He needs to save Himself, as it were.  This theological possibility is concealed within verses describing the suffering or salvation of Israel – and that is precisely the meaning of the concealment.  Outwardly, in the simple sense, it is Israel who is suffering, but a more inward look reveals that the Divine Presence, too, is suffering.


The Tosafot on the mishna in the Talmud Bavli (44a) interpret Rashi's version in accordance with the discussion in the Yerushalmi:


Why was [Ana Hashem] changed [to Anu va-hu]?Because Eikha Rabbati expounds what is written in Yechezkel, "and I was among the exiles," and what is written in Yirmiyahu, "and he was bound in chains" – He Himself, as it were.  This is the meaning of "hoshana" – that He should save Himself."


[The source for this is to be found in Eikha Rabba (Buber Edition – petichta 34): "'And he was bound in chains' (Yirmiyahu 40:1) – Rabbi Acha said: (This suggests) he (Yirmiyahu) as well as Him (God), and similarly it is written, 'as I was among the exiles' (Yechezkel 1:1)."]


This fundamental idea, introduced by Chazal, appears in several more places.  Thus, for example, the gemara (Ta'anit 16a) explains the placing of the wood ashes – a symbol of mourning – on the Ark (after it is brought out to the town square) as part of the declaration of a public fast:


Why are wood ashes placed on the Ark? Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi said: As though to declare, "I (God – symbolized by the Ark) am with him in distress" (Tehillim 91:15).


Reish Lakish said: [It recalls] "In all of their afflictions He was afflicted" (Yishayahu 63:9)."


Clearly, the simple meaning of the promise, "I am with him in distress" is that God does not forsake either the individual or Am Yisrael as a whole, even at a time of crisis, but Chazal interpret it in their own way, suggesting that God Himself participates in the distress and suffering.


This rabbinical concept finds extensive expression in the description of the Egyptian slavery.  For example, in Shemot Rabba 2,5:


It says, “In all of their affliction, He was afflicted” (Yishayahu 63:9).  God said to Moshe: Do you not sense that I am in distress just as Bnei Yisrael are in distress? Know this from the place where I speak with you – from among the thorns, demonstrating, as it were, that I am a partner in their distress.


Or in more comprehensive form, in the following midrash (Sifri, Bamidbar, piska 84):


Thus, we find that so long as Bnei Yisrael are enslaved, the Divine Presence is enslaved along with them, as it were, as it is written: "They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was a kind of paved work of sapphire" (Shemot 24:10).  Likewise, it says, "in all of their afflictions, He was afflicted" (Yishayahu 63:9).

Thus, we deduce that God shares in communal suffering.  But from where do we learn that He shares also in the suffering of the individual? From the verse, "Let him call upon Me and I shall answer; I am with him in (his) distress" (Tehillim 91:15).  Likewise, he says: "And Yosef's master took him… and God was with Yosef" (Bereishit 39:20-21).  It also says, "… from before Your people, whom You redeemed from Egypt – the nation and their God" (II Shmuel 7:23)…

Rabbi Akiva taught: Had this not been written explicitly in the text, we could not suggest such a thing.  Bnei Yisrael said to God, as it were, "You redeemed Yourself."

Likewise, we find that to wherever they were exiled, the Divine Presence was with them, as it is written, "Was I not revealed to your father's household, while they were in Egypt, in the house of Pharaoh" (I Shmuel 2:27).  When they were exiled to Babylon, the Divine Presence was likewise with them, as it is written, "For your sake I have sent to Babylon" (Yishayahu 43:14).


Finally, let us recall the words of Rabbi Meir in the mishna in Sanhedrin (6:5) concerning the sorrow of the Divine Presence over a person's death:


Rabbi Meir said: When a person is distressed, what does the Divine Presence say, as it were? "My head is heavy; My arm is heavy." If this is how God is distressed over the blood of the wicked when it is spilled, how much more so [will He be distressed] over the blood of the righteous.


Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (among other similar views) explains: "Like a person who is tired [or unhappy – T.G.] and says, 'My head and my arms are heavy.'"




Translated by Kaeren Fish