Vayelech/Shabbos Shuva: Fortunate Are You, O Israel!

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayelech, the Torah informs us of Hester Panim, the Concealment of the Divine Face, when Hashem hides His face (keviyachol) from His world and, specifically, from His people.  The pasukim (Devarim 31:17-18) tell us:

וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹםהַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם, וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל, וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת; וְאָמַר, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, הֲלֹא עַל כִּיאֵין אֱלֹקי בְּקִרְבִּי, מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה

And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our G-d is no longer in my midst, that these evils have befallen me?’

וְאָנֹכִי, הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, עַל כָּלהָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה: כִּי פָנָה, אֶלאֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים

And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to gods of others.

Of all the punishments listed in the Torah (such as the klalos of Bechukosai and Ki Savo), the condition of Hester Panim is the worst condition that may potentially befall our nation, R”L.

This Shabbos, when Parshas Vayelech is read, is also Shabbos Shuva – the Sabbath of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  It is a Shabbos of soul searching, when the pure neshama of each and every Jew yearns to return to Hashem in repentance.  The depth of our deveikus is that even in the most terrible times, a Jew knows the RS”O is always there for him – even when He is hidden, and we always turn to Him for salvation, come what may.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l (1924-2010, Holocaust survivor and Rosh Yeshiva Yeshivat Har Etzion) teaches, “Yet I have to ask – and I pray that I am not crossing a line – does the fear of divine punishment (yiras ha’onesh) really lead to fear of Heaven (yiras Shomayim)? … On Yom Kippur we seek to attain fear of Heaven, but it is not certain that fear of punishment, thinking about the Books of the Living and of the Dead that are opened, is the right way to go about it.

“My friends, during the darkest time in Jewish history, the Holocaust, Jews saw with their own eyes that ‘וְיֵ֥שׁ נִ֜סְפֶּ֗ה בְּלֹ֣א מִשְׁפָּֽטsome die without judgement’ (Mishlei 13:23).  Not only individuals but millions died, as it were, without judgement.  But something extraordinary happened: Jews who saw with their own eyes the murder of innocent babies, men, and women, whose children were snatched out of their arms, Jews who lost all hope of ever emerging alive from that hell – they all came together on Yom Kippur in the bunkers and prayed!  What inspired them?  Was it fear of judgement?  These Jews experienced the worst concealment of G-d’s face in history, yet they stood and cried out, as Iyov did: ‘הֵן יִקְטְלֵנִי לוֹ אֲיַחֵלthough He may slay me, yet I will trust in Him’ (Iyov 13:15).

“Whatever else is true, for those Jews on that Yom Kippur, their fate in this world was of no concern.  What, then, were they feeling and thinking as they prayed?  The answer is to be found in the concluding words of Maseches Yoma, where the Mishna teaches: Says R’ Akiva: אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, Happy are you, O Israel!  Before Whom are you purified; Who purifies you?  Your Father in heaven, as it is written, ‘Then I shall sprinkle pure water upon you, and you shall be pure’ (Ez.36:25), and it is written, ‘The hope of Israel is Hashem’ (Jer.17:13).  Just as the mikvah purifies those who are defiled, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

“R’ Akiva was killed during a very dark time in Jewish history (in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple). For that very reason his words – אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, Happy are you, O Israel! – are a source of inspiration for the entire Jewish people, even during the most difficult periods.

“During the Holocaust, no one felt the fear of ‘who will live and who will die,’ but rather the exaltation of ‘Happy are you, O Israel.’  It was this feeling that made Jews declare, ‘יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבאMay His great name be magnified and sanctified.’  I was fortunate that when I prayed on Yom Kippur, there was already hope of being saved. [Ed. note – On Yom Kippur 5707/1944, R’ Amital hid in a cellar in the city of Grosswardein while the Hungarian army was already preparing for the coming invasion by the Russian army.  He was liberated from the labor camp on Simchas Torah 5705.]  But even those who had no such hope stood on Yom Kippur and prayed together with all of Israel, ‘And so place the fear of You, L-rd our G-d, over all that You have made… And so grant honor, L-rd, to Your people.’

“What about us, will our entire experience of Yom Kippur be limited to the fear of judgement?  Will we not feel the holy message that the Jews in the Holocaust left for us?  That message demands that we pray for G-d’s sovereignty.  Our fear of judgment should not be based on fear of punishment, but on the fear that, Heaven forbid, we will be considered wicked before G-d.  We must hear the call, ‘לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִיןBefore Whom are you purified?’ and be proud that it is G-d Himself Who purifies us” (When G-d is Near on the High Holidays, Maggid Books, p.231-232).

As we contemplate the awesome power of these Ten Days of Repentance, as we ponder our own fallibility and G-d’s Infinity, as we consider the judgement of the coming new year for the entire world, let us remember that the path of repentance is to be found in יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבאMay His great name be magnified and sanctified.

בברכת גמר וחתימה טובה ושבת שלום,


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