October 6, 2016
In this weeks Sedra, God informs Moshe of the consequences that the Jewish nation will suffer if they forsake the Torah and stray after foreign gods: “My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distress will encounter it.” (Devarim 31:17)
Abarbanel explains what “God hiding His face” means.
Instead of delineating specific punishments, which He does often throughout the Torah, God designates in this verse the worst consequence of all — withdrawing His Divine Providence from the nation.
By turning to other gods the nation will hope to share in the material success of their followers, but in reality the opposite will occur. As the prophet Jeremiah said, “Ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heavens, and pouring out libations, we have lacked everything…” (Jeremiah 44:18)
Rather than enjoying material success, their possessions will serve as prey for others. In regard to relations with their enemies, Moshe is telling them that they shouldn’t think that they will be merely subjected to natural, military and geopolitical forces like everyone else, where there is sometimes success and sometimes failure. Rather, they will encounter only “evils and distresses”.
There are two reasons why the removal of Divine Providence is even worse than abandoning the nation to natural forces. First of all, having become used to relying on God’s Divine Providence, the nation never learned or practiced the myriad of military, economic and political skills required to navigate a sea of conflicts and natural challenges. This was especially true in terms of military matters, where God’s direct intervention, rather than superior numbers, weapons or tactics, insured their success. This is not the case regarding the other nations of the world. Lacking God’s unique protection, they are forced to rely on their own intelligence to survive. They have had experience overcoming calamity using the tools of the natural world, human intelligence and experience. This is a dimension totally lacking in the history of the Jewish nation.
Secondly, on the more metaphysical level, the nations of the world are under the influence of the constellations and have “advocates” (sarim) in the spiritual realm. Israel, on the other hand, has no advocate other than the Omnipotent God. As a result, when God withdraws His unique Divine Providence, only evil, distress and suffering remain, as the advocates of the other nations have unfettered sway over the fortunes of Israel.
There is another way to understand the concept of God’s “concealing His face”. Withdrawing His protection and subjecting the Jewish nation to suffering at the hands of the nations of the world can actually be seen as a “negative” application of Divine Providence. Divine Providence is always operating with the Jewish nation. What God is saying here is that the Divine Providence which results in protection from our enemies and material success will be concealed and replaced with the Divine Providence which gives our enemies a “free hand”.
Just as Divine Providence can rescue us from seemingly unavoidable tragedy, such as facing the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, that same Divine Providence can bring about tragedy and suffering even when we feel that we are successful and naturally well-protected.