God’s Face

One of the most marvelous passages, for me, in all the Bible is from Isaiah 54:

 For a brief moment I (GOD) have abandoned you, but in merciful compassion I shall gather you. 

The prophet goes on in God’s voice, saying:

“In a great, gushing whirlwind of anger I hid my face from you — for a brief moment — but in everlasting loving kindness I will show you merciful compassion.”

God hiding God’s face – hester panim in Hebrew – is a sentiment often expressed to explain the apparent absence of the divine in times of enormous challenge.  For instance, where was God in the Holocaust?

In an article in the New York Times Magazine some time ago, a fundamentalist Pentecostal minister recounted how he lost his faith. A member of his flock asked him to pray for her brother who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. He could not bring himself to do it, because, he realized, he just didn’t believe.

But what kind of God did this pastor reject?

And I have to wonder what it means when people say “I believe in God.” I think they may be saying, in some fashion, I believe in Santa Claus. That there is a big guy out there who, if I’m a good person and pray a lot, will reward me; but if I am bad, well . . .  I’m sorry; that just doesn’t speak to me. That is a kind of God I reject, too.

But what does it mean to talk about God hiding God’s face?

There is a Talmudic statement that says the Torah speaks in human language.  We know God has no face, per se. It’s just one of the ways we make God user-friendly. To make him personal. Relatable. In a sense, we create God in human form so we conceive of Him.  And approach Him.  It’s clearly necessary, so when we need something beyond ourselves, we have someplace to go. And we can draw enormous spiritual comfort from these lines. Yes, God hid His Face, but He has promised not to abandon us.

I think we are talking about a God we have created. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting I don’t believe in a creator, a Master of the World, called in Hebrew the “ribono shel olam.”  I have a deep faith. But I also believe the Torah is a human document — written by humans, perhaps divinely inspired, I don’t know. But it was created, as all religions are, to respond to a recognition of the divine, a profound understanding that life has meaning because there is something out there that is greater, something we choose to call God.

I said I believe. But I also know I don’t have the capacity to really understand what God is. None of us knows. So I pray.

I pray because the tradition I received has given me a format for approaching the unknowable. And though I believe the Jewish tradition is human-made, it has, over the centuries, provided a way for me to express my recognition that there is a divinity, a creator, a master of the universe. I don’t pretend to know what God is. But I believe our tradition offers a time-tested way for me to express my recognition of the ineffable.

To me, the important point in the reading from Isaiah is our response. Our recognition that in the face of these questions, our tradition is trying to find an answer. A positive, life-affirming, God-affirming answer. As it was expressed in the extraordinary words of the prophet Isaiah:

Although in a great, gushing whirlwind of anger I hid my face from you for a brief moment, but in everlasting loving kindness I will show you overwhelming maternal compassion.

The concluding words of the passage are:    The redeeming God. 

This, I believe, is critical to our human understanding of the divine: the redeeming God. A God we may have created in order to approach the unknowable but a God that will redeem us by our belief that there is meaning to our lives.

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