Shabbat Shuvah: Why God Hides
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is always called the Shabbat Shuvah, or the Shabbat of Return.
In the Torah reading this week, Moses — in his farewell speech to the Children of Israel before he dies — says that he knows they will abandon God and reject the Torah. He keeps on repeating this cynical, pessimistic view of the people. But he knows what he is talking about, because he has seen that regardless of the Exodus, the miracles, and the Jewish people’s survival in the desert, they do keep going off track. And that has continued to this day. In every generation, many Jews have abandoned our Jewish way of life.
When this happens, Moses says, God turns away from us and leaves us to our own devices. The term used here is Hester Panim — literally God Hides the Face. It is one of the most moving concepts in Jewish mysticism. This beautiful metaphor of unrequited love and alienation increases the gap between God and us. God, so to speak, is there all the time for us to tap into — and if we do, we will feel reciprocity, a sense of connection. Otherwise, God, so to speak, turns a back on us.
But Moses insists, nevertheless, that the Torah, which he calls a poem or a song several times, is a love poem between God and us, and that it should be written down and displayed for everyone to see.
He hopes that if it is ignored, it will not be forgotten. And this has helped ensure Jewish continuity, and has been crucial in enabling us to come back from countless tragedies, and to survive.
In his speech, Moses speaks seven times of the idea of return — TeShuva. In essence, he reminds us that however many times we stray, there is always a chance to come back. The emphasis is on return, rather than repent.
It is this idea of returning that gives its name to this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We can repent at any time. But it is this communal experience of return during these 10 days that reinforces our identities and our roots.
The song we sing is a love song to our heritage. True love is difficult to find. Love hurts, and it often is hard work. It has to be reciprocal, and when it is, there is nothing quite like it. And the same goes for our relationship with our people and our faith.
May your Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur be meaningful and inspirational wherever you are.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.