Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tisha B’Av and God’s Hidden Face*

On this day when we mourn the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples my thoughts often turn to a more recent tragedy – the Holocaust.

After the destruction of the 2 Holy Temples God imposed upon the world something called Hester Panim. Our ancestors turned their backs on God… and God has paid us back in kind. He is visiting the sins of the fathers upon their children as He promised. Jewish history is replete with Jewish suffering. None greater than the Holocaust.

While it is impossible to know the Why of the Holocaust - it is possible to explain it theologically.

Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik tells us that there are 2 ways God delivers Divine punishment. One is the Midas HaDin where God actively punishes sin. And the other is Hester Panim – which is almost the opposite of Midas HaDin.

With Hester Panim God delivers Divine punishment by removing his active involvement with us. An involvement He promised us in the Torah giving us Divine protection if we follow his word. With Hester Panim he delivers His promise (Devarim 31:17) to us if we disappoint him. His anger flares up. He abandons us and “Hides His face from us”.  In withdrawing His protection  He leaves our fate to matters to chance.  Hester Panim signifies rejection. Which is more devastating than Midas HaDin. Instaed of just punishing us - God has turned his back on us.

To better explain it - Rav Soloveitchik tells us that according to the Ramban there are two stages of Divine creation. One called Beriah which is the actual act of creating something from nothing - Yesh MeAyin. This is what God did when he created the universe. 

That resulted in Tohu V’Vohu – a chaotic primordial soup. Then there is Yetzirah – taking the exiting primordial material and forming the universe into what we have today. That was what God did during the six days of creation.

Hester Panin can be see as a reversion to the Tohu V’Vohu days – a period without any physical patterns - a state of primordial chaos.  Although God has not removed himself entirely from the universe  since if he did the universe could not exist- He has nevertheless removed His active control on events of the day, leaving us to suffer the great tragedies of Jewish history.

On Tisha B’Av we read about the Asarah Harugei Machus – the 10 righteous sages that were murdered in torturous ways. That was an expression of the Midas HaDin. When the angles protested it, God told them if they continued to protest he would return the universe to Tohu V’Vohu - Hester Panim.

The Holocaust by contrast was an expression of Hester Panim. We cannot explain the ‘why’ of the Holocaust. But we can classify it theologically. This is how the world appears when God’s moderating surveillance is suspended. The suffering the Jewish people have had to endure throughout history is a result of God’s fulfilling his promise to us if we sin. Hester Panim as we know it today began after the destruction of the 2nd Beis Hamikdash.

Rav Soloveitchik tells us that the State of Israel reflects the return of God’s active providence. The trials and tribulations it has experienced since its creation does not negate the miraculous manifestations of Divine favor which has been showered on the Israel since it was put back Jewish hands. May God bring the final redemption soon and in our day.

*Based on Reflections of the Rav by Abraham R. Besdin (Hat tip – Neil Harris)