The Gemara in Chullin (139b) asks, Where do we find “Esther” in the Torah? “And I will hide (astir) my face from them on that day.” Purim is one of the most joyful days in the Jewish calendar. It is strange to associate it with hester panim, the hiding of Hashem’s face, representing the greatest form of suffering. What, then, is the relationship between the joy of Purim and the agony of Hester Panim?
Furthermore, a critical examination of the pesukim around Hester Panim in the Torah reveals an obvious question about the nature of Hashem’s hiding.
“Hashem said to Moshe, “When you go to lay with your ancestors, this nation will rise and stray after the alien gods of the land into which they are coming. They will abandon me and violate the covenant I have made with them. I will then show my anger against them and abandon them. I will hide my face from them, and they will be their enemies’ prey. Harried by evils and troubles, they will say, ‘Is it not because Hashem is not with me that all these terrible things have befallen us’? And on that day, I will surely hide my face because of their corruption in turning towards alien gods.” (Devarim 31:16-18)
The commentators ask that if Klal Yisrael has come to the realization, “Is it not because Hashem is not with me that all these terrible things have befallen us?” why then are they responded to with “And on that day I will surely hide my face…”? The expected response to Klal Yisrael’s humility would have been a revelation of Hashem’s presence. Instead Hashem “surely hides” which represents a particularly intense form of Hester Panim (see Sefas Emes, Vayelech 5639 who explains that we are speaking of a Hester Panim that is so intense that we actually forget that Hashem exists at all). What then is the nature of Hester Panim?
While there are many approaches to this issue, I would like to share with you the approach of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. By way of introduction, let us analyze a parable offered by the Degel Machane Ephraim, a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. A King had a deep desire to test the loyalty and love of his sons. He devised a plan to construct walls around his palace to see which of his sons would try to enter and be with him. The walls, however, were not actual barriers but an optical illusion. There were walls of wind and fire, and moats full of water; all meant to deceive the King’s sons. The only son who had the genuine desire to be with his father was clever enough to realize that the walls were not real barriers. He recognized that they were only illusions, and that his father must have created them to test his loyalty and love. He comprehended that each wall represented a deeper level of love that he had for his father. However, another son, who was not as wise as the first, perceived the walls as genuine obstacles and gave up his quest to reach his father. This son assumed that the King had abandoned him and did not realize that the walls were only an illusion meant to test his love for his father.
The lesson is that Hester Panim is but an illusion designed to examine how we will relate to Hashem’s hiddenness. Those who recognize that we are playing a cosmic game of hide and seek will relentlessly continue to seek out Hashem. The obstacles they face along the way are loving expressions of Hashem’s desire for us to find Him. The greater the obstacle, the greater the love. Those who do not bow out of the game are rewarded with a richness in their relationship with Hashem that could not have otherwise been achieved. In other words, we don’t only find Hashem within the distance, but because of the distance. The reason that distance exists is to build a more genuine relationship with Hashem.
Consider the following selected quotes from the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan, Tinyana 12)
וַאֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁנּוֹפֵל, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, לִסְפֵקוֹת, וְיֵשׁ שֶׁנְּפִילָתוֹ גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד מְאֹד, רַחֲמָנָא לִצְלָן, שֶׁנּוֹפֵל לִסְפֵקוֹת וְהִרְהוּרִים, וּמְהַרְהֵר אַחַר הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ, אַף־עַל־פִּי־כֵן הַנְּפִילָה וְהַיְרִידָה הִיא תַּכְלִית הָעֲלִיָּה
And even when one falls into doubts, —and one’s descent can be extremely terrible, may the Merciful One spare us, falling into doubts and thoughts and questioning Hashem—even so, that downfall and descent is for the sake of the ascent.
וְעַל־כֵּן כְּשֶׁאָדָם נוֹפֵל, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, לִבְחִינַת מְקוֹמוֹת אֵלּוּ, דְּהַיְנוּ לִבְחִינַת מְקוֹמוֹת הַמְטֻנָּפִים, וְנוֹפֵל לִסְפֵקוֹת וְהִרְהוּרִים וּבִלְבּוּלִים גְּדוֹלִים, וַאֲזַי מַתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל עַל עַצְמוֹ, וְרוֹאֶה שֶׁרָחוֹק מְאֹד מִכְּבוֹדוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְשׁוֹאֵל וּמְבַקֵּשׁ אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ, מֵאַחַר שֶׁרוֹאֶה בְּעַצְמוֹ שֶׁרָחוֹק מִכְּבוֹדוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, מֵאַחַר שֶׁנָּפַל לִמְקוֹמוֹת כָּאֵלּוּ, רַחֲמָנָא לִצְלָן, וְזֶה זֶה עִקָּר תִּקּוּנוֹ וַעֲלִיָּתוֹ, בִּבְחִינַת יְרִידָה תַּכְלִית הָעֲלִיָּה, הַמּוּבָא בִּסְפָרִים
Therefore, when a person falls into places of this sort, into the “filthy places,” falling into doubts, heresy and great confusion—if he then begins examining himself and sees that he is very far from Hashem—and as a consequence of his seeing himself far from His glory, having fallen into such places, God spare us, he asks and seeks, “Where is the place of His glory?”—this, this, is the essence of his rectification and ascent, as in the concept brought in the writings: “The descent is for the sake of the ascent [that follows].”
נִמְצָא כְּשֶׁמְּבַקֵּשׁ וּמְחַפֵּשׂ “אַיֵּה” מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ, בָּזֶה בְּעַצְמוֹ הוּא חוֹזֵר וְעוֹלֶה אֶל הַכָּבוֹד הָעֶלְיוֹן, שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת “אַיֵּה”, שֶׁמִּגֹּדֶל הַסְתָּרָתוֹ וְהֶעְלֵמוֹ הוּא מְחַיֶּה מְקוֹמוֹת הַלָּלוּ, וְעַכְשָׁו, עַל־יְדֵי שֶׁהוּא נָפַל לְשָׁם, וַאֲזַי מְבַקֵּשׁ “אַיֵּה” מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ. וּבָזֶה חוֹזֵר וּמְדַבֵּק עַצְמוֹ לְשָׁם, וּמְחַיֶּה אֶת נְפִילָתוֹ, וְעוֹלֶה בְּתַכְלִית הָעֲלִיָּה.
And so, when a person seeks and searches “Where/Ayeh is the place of His glory?”—through this itself he returns and ascends to the supreme glory, the concept of Ayeh, which, by virtue of its great concealment and hiddenness, gives life to those places. Thus now, by having fallen there and consequently sought “Ayeh is the place of His glory?” he re-connects himself there and instills vitality into his downfall and rises to the highest heights.
Perhaps the insights d above can shed new light on the Gemara in Chagiga (5b), which addresses the topic of Hester Panim.
״וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא״, אָמַר רָבָא, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָּנַי מֵהֶם — ״בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ״
About the verse: “And I will hide my face in that day” (Devarim 31:18), Rava said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Even though I hid my face from them and My Divine Presence is not revealed, nevertheless: “I speak with him in a dream” (Bamidbar 12:6).
On a surface level this Gemara is teaching us that while Hashem is hidden in times of Hester Panim, He is not completely hidden in that He still communicates with us through our dreams. On a deeper level, we have already learned that Hester Panim is merely an optical illusion. A dream, if you will. The Gemara is not making two separate statements that while Hashem is hidden, He still communicates with us through our dreams but rather this is one statement. The illusion of Hester Panim is both a hiding of Hashem’s presence and a revelation of Hashem’s presence. On the one hand, the walls are barriers that prevent us from feeling Hashem’s presence in our lives, and on the other hand those very same walls are an expression of Hashem’s love for us. They are invitations for us to draw closer to Him. He is communicating with us through the dreamlike obstacles that have been put in our path.
The Gemara in Berachos (13b) relates that Rav said to his uncle, Rav Chiya, “I did not see Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi accept the kingship of Heaven upon himself,” meaning he did not see him recite Krias Shema. Rav Chiya said, “When Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi passed his hands over his face, he accepted the Ol Malchus Shamayim upon himself.” The Chasam Sofer explains that Rav was asking his uncle Rav Chiya a question. Why would Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who had achieved total connection with Hashem, have to “accept” upon himself Ol Malchus Shomayim? Was there a moment when he lacked connection with Hashem that he could now accept upon himself the Kingship of Heaven? Rav Chiya answered that when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would “pass his hands over his face” he would enter into a momentary state of Hester Panim. In this state, he would be able to accept upon himself Ol Malchus Shomayim. In other words, there is value not only in cleaving to Hashem but achieving a state of Dveikus with Hashem. Even the great Rabbeinu HaKadosh would enter into a state of Hester Panim so that he could choose to be Mekabel Ol Malchus Shomayim.
Returning to our original questions, we can now readily understand why after Klal Yisrael humbled themselves and recognized that it was precisely because they lacked Hashem in their lives that they experienced Hester Panim. The Maggid of Mezritch answers that we must look carefully at the words of the pasuk – “Is it not because Hashem is not with me that all these terrible things have befallen us’?” How could they believe that Hashem was not with them? Like the foolish son in the parable of the Degel Machane Ephraim, they believed in the reality of the barriers. Hester Panim is only an illusion. If Hashem hides Himself it is only so that he may be found. The result is Hester Panim, increased darkness. Only when we are forced to see through the optical illusion of Hester Panim can we develop a proper relationship with Hashem. As the saying goes from the great Chasidic Master, Rav Levi Yiztchak of Berdichev, “I am playing hide and seek with Hashem, and I am finding Him everywhere.”
The entire Purim story reflects the dual nature of Hester Panim. We do not find Hashem’s name in the Megillah. The whole story easily aligns with the natural order of life and politics. But Esther HaMalka sees beyond the natural order that hides Hashem’s presence. She calls upon Klal Yisrael to fast for three days before she enters the chambers of Achashverosh. She will not be spared because she is the king’s wife but because Klal Yisrael has turned to the King in our time of need. In this merit, we name the Megillah after her and not Mordechai Hatzaddik. Living up the essence of her name, she engages the Hester Panim and pulls back the curtain to reveal Hashem. And because she climbs over the illusory barriers that have been placed in her way, Klal Yisrael reached greater heights than they did by Matan Torah. קימו וקבלו קיימו מה שקבלו כברIn the generation of Esther, they ordained mitzvos that they had already accepted upon themselves by oath in the plains of Moav. (Shavuos 39a)
The famed Breslov Mashpia, Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter, explains the passuk of “Vayezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha, He cut off all the stragglers at your rear.” to mean that Amalek cuts off- they mock and disdain those Jews that are in the rear. The Jews that live in a state of Hester Panim. Those that don’t feel Hashem’s presence in their lives. Amalek can’t see through to the inner beauty of every single Jew.
The Toldos, Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye, teaches that when a Jew is in a state of Hester Panim, when obstacles arise as we attempt to do a Mitzvah, when we we lack any enthusiasm and passion in our Avodas Hashem, a person may chas v’shalom come to think that they are undesirable to Hashem. In reality, the obstacles, the Hester Panim, are only illusions meant to spur us on to even greater heights. The Baal HaTanya takes this even one step further. A person ought to rejoice when the Hester Panim sets in. This is what he has been training for. This is the opportunity to express our loyalty to Hashem, bringing Hashem into the world down below. Only through the dreamlike illusion of Hester Panim can we fulfill the mission for which we were created.
We live in a time when many of us feel a lack of Divine presence. Yiddishkeit at best is an exercise in going through the motions. The obstacles that confront our generation appear to be enormous and unprecedented. Asifas have been held to address the challenges of these turbulent times, but respectfully, they address the symptoms, not the cause. While it is critically important that we guard ourselves against the pitfalls that lie before us, we ought to be sharing a message with the world that the Hester Panim we are confronting expresses Hashem’s love. The higher the wall, the deeper the love. In these final moments before Mashiach’s arrival, the darkness has to be thicker than ever before. How else could we have the opportunity to climb to new and greater heights? The world is in a perpetual game of hide and seek with Hashem. Sometimes it seems to me that we are spending more time discussing the challenge of these “insurmountable” obstacles than actually seeking Hashem within them. If we want to bring redemption to this world, we must do as Esther HaMalka did in the days of Purim. We must look beyond the natural order and call out אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ, where is Hashem’s glory in this world! In this way, we’ll connect ourselves to Hashem and rise up to unimaginable heights.