“I will turn my face towards you and you will be struck down before your enemies” Leviticus 26:17
The Torah’s powerful words warn us of the punishment the Jewish people will receive if we abandon the mitzvot. Saadia Gaon interprets the beginning of this verse to mean that God will turn His anger towards us.
In the portion of Vayelech, the Torah in similar vein warns us of straying from the path of mitzvot but although the straightforward meaning of the verse seems identical, there is a subtle change: “On that day my anger shall be released and I shall turn my face away from them…” (Deuteronomy 31:17). The ensuing consequences are the same. Terrible calamities shall befall us as a people, but why the different terms?
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explained that these are two different stages in Jewish history. There have been times where we faced terrible persecution — the Crusades, pogroms, and Inquisition among them. Yet even though many Jews suffered terrible anguish, loss and devastation, in general there was no claim of abandonment. People did not ask where was God.
Just reading letters from that period can teach us the incredible inner faith with which Jews faced their oppressors. This was when we suffered but still saw God: “I shall turn my face towards you.”
Yet during the Holocaust, which Rav Hutner survived, so many did ask the question of where God was. Many accused the Almighty of abandonment, of having turned His face “away”. A hidden face, where we just could not see God perhaps, because He did not wish to be found.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the contemporary yeshivah head, taught that we should bear Rav Hutner’s observation in mind, for only three years following the destruction, we arose as a nation: a Jewish state emerged from the ashes of that consuming fire and the face of God was once again there for all to see.