Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothenburg Alter of Ger (1787-1866) commented on this passage, that if a person is aware that something is hidden from him, then the disaster is not so great, for he will follow his yearning, and break down every barrier that exists in order to discover what is hidden. However, tragedy occurs someone is unaware that there is something more concealed within that which is hidden, and therefore they have no desire to seek it out.
It would seem from the Torah text that the people will become aware of God's hiddeness. They will therefore seek God out in the time when they are to experience the greatest punishment and darkest despair. In many ways, this is the essence of teshuvah, return or repentance, which is the main focus of these ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur.
Keeping this in mind, I found myself having a different reaction to both the Torah text cited above and to the commentary. For in reading the text, I found its essence not merely to be the idea of God being hidden, which is certainly frightening on its own, but that the hiding was a consequence of the people's actions.
This sense of being alone can beget depression, despair, apathy, and a sense that our lives and existence is meaningless. If we remain in this state, we are bound to continue in the downward spiral and act in ways that are increasingly antithetical to what God wants of us. In this way we not only continue to turn our backs on God, but we move further and further away from Divinity. We do this by distancing ourselves from other people and our connection to the world.
When we do this we then fulfill the most dire of the prophecies in this parashah and find ourselves at the bottom of an extremely steep slope of despair and hopelessness. From that place, where it is almost impossible to feel the light and warmth of God's presence, let alone imagine that it even exists, we believe even more strongly that we are there because God has abandoned us. We are unable to realize that God is merely hidden from our view because we turned our back on God in the first place.
Yet, if we had simply turned around near the beginning of our downward journey, we would have been able to realize that God was there waiting all along. If we had realized that God was "hidden" from us because of our own action, or inaction, then we would have been able to use all of our effort to break down the barriers between us and God so that we could discover God's hidden face.
However, once we get to the bottom of the ravine, simply turning around will not help. Even our greatest efforts might not be able to break down the barriers or help us climb back up the slope. Mere teshuvah, in its simplest sense, will not be enough to pull us out. But, if this is so, then how do we rise again so that we can stand on the top of the mountain in the presence of the Divine together with all of humanity and all of creation?
The answer to this query is deceptively simple, yet it requires courage, faith and trust - three qualities that we often lack when in a state of such utter despair. For the answer lies in relationship and community. The answer lies in the willingness to allow others to reach down into the abyss and help pull us out. This process begins with simply allowing one to hear the voice of God in the voice of others. This requires silence and a kind of deep hearing with our soul. When in a place of despair, it requires paying attention to the negative
voices in our minds and then allowing them to fade. Then we can begin to hear the distant call of God in the voice of family, friends and loved ones.
Eventually we reach the top where we can feel the light of God and see the divine countenance in the faces of those who helped lift us up to this place. That is the beauty of the communal teshuvah that we perform together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is why we are meant to do this difficult work in community, and not merely alone. Finding that community is not always easy, but when one does find it the change can be profound. It is also the beauty of being part of a community, as society and a world, where there exists a social compact to remind us that we are meant to be there to help one another.
On this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is time to look around us and see where we are. Are we at the top of the hill, the bottom of the pit, somewhere in between, or perhaps in both places simultaneously? If you are at the bottom of the pit, then allow yourself to know it, even though it may be painful. Honor the place where you are. Take the time to experience wherever you are at this moment before you turn to take the next step on your journey. Then from your silence and your stillness, listen to the voice of God and look for God's countenance - for it is never more than just a 180 degree turn away – in the faces and voices of those around us. Then you can continue your journey of Teshuvah.
I wish you all g'mar hatimah tovah - may you be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life. And may we each work with everyone to see that this is true for us all.