“‘For a small moment have I forsaken you;
But with great compassion will I gather you.
In a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment,
But with everlasting kindness will I have compassion on you,’
Says Hashem the Redeemer.” (Isaiah, LIV, v. 7-8.)
This passage expresses the heart of the Fifth Haftarah of Consolation, the haftarah accompanying this week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetzeh. The prophet Isaiah’s words above are regarded as a message of encouragement and comfort to the remnants of Israel in exile in Babylonia. But is the message truly consoling?
Israel had endured a great calamity: the destruction of the First Temple and of the kingdom of Judea, the suffering and ordeals described in Megillat Eicha (the book of Lamentations), the slaughter of many and the forcible removal of the remainder from the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to a harsh new existence as aliens in a strange land. But all this, according to Isaiah, was but a “small” and “momentary” expression of God’s anger, merely “a little wrath.” God would soon “gather” us back in compassion, due to His eternal love for His people. God never fully abandoned us. He was always with us, Isaiah states; he merely “hid [His] face.”
One verse earlier, Isaiah likens God’s temporal anger toward Israel to that of a husband toward an errant wife, whom he forsakes but, continues to love and eventually forgives. (Isaiah, LIV, v. 6.) But is the analogy to transitory human emotions really a comforting idea? Most of us will acknowledge times in which we have been angry at loved ones, and have acted rashly toward them as a result, but we tend to regard such short-temperedness as a human weakness rather than a divine attribute. The notion of the Almighty One displaying bouts of rage may not seem so “consoling.” Perhaps another way of reading Isaiah, then, is not as a message of consolation but a wake-up call about the consequences of our own wrath.
The Tanach and Jewish liturgy abound with references to God’s “hiding His face” in anger. One example, Psalm 30 recited daily as an introduction to the Psukei’ D’Zimra service, expresses a similar theme to this week’s haftarah. “For His anger endures but a moment; life results from His favor. In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn -- a cry of joy! . . . But Hashem, all is through your favor. . . . should You but conceal your face, I would be confounded.” To the author of this psalm, nothing is so powerfully uplifting as God’s favor, and nothing is so devastating as his hiding his “face.”
Another example is particularly noteworthy at this time of year. Each day from Rosh Hodesh Elul (last week) through Sh’mini Atzeret we add to the daily shachrit service the psalm, “L’David, Hashem Ori” (Psalm 27), which includes the following plea to God: “On your behalf my heart has said, ‘Seek My Face.’ Your face, Hashem, do I seek. Conceal not Your face from me, repel not Your servant in anger.” Elsewhere in the psalm, the author (traditionally David) proclaims he has no fear of “evildoers,” who approach to “devour [his] flesh,” nor of tormentors, and armies of foes who would beseige or rise against him. The one thing he desperately fears is that God, in anger, will hide his face from him.
These passages each express a common idea. Among the gravest decrees God metes out to us, the most dreaded expression of His wrath, is the concealment of His “presence” or “face” from us. Perhaps by his analogy, in this week’s Haftarah, to human emotions -- a husband’s anger toward his cherished wife -- Isaiah intended to draw our attention to our own similar manifestations of anger toward our loved ones.
How often, out of momentary anger -- and convinced of our own righteousness and justification -- have we have lashed out at our spouses, siblings, parents, children, and dearest friends in hurtful ways we later regret? Perhaps the harshest “punishment” we inflict on those we love is hiding our face. There are many ways we “hide our faces” -- by dramatically refusing to speak to each other (I’ve known siblings and formerly close friends who have been carrying this on for years), or, less dramatically by avoiding each other, by not making time for each other, by not truly listening to or “being there” for each other, or by slowly but steadily drifting away.
It is no coincidence that we read the Fifth Haftarah of Consolation at the onset of Elul, just as we begin to recite Psalm 27 daily. Elul, the final month before Rosh Hashanah, is a time for self-examination, taking an “account of one’s soul.” It is also a time for “selichot,” repairing our relationships with others, seeking and giving forgiveness. As we read the psalmists’ pleas to God not to “hide his face” in anger, together with Isaiah’s “consoling” message that God had only momentarily hid his face in anger but would soon gather us back in love, perhaps we will recall those once dear to us who have become estranged or are gradually drifting away from our lives. We might not be fully ready to forgive, or to seek forgiveness, but it is time to restore the connection, to gather those we love back to us, to speak again. Do not hide your face!