In Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about God Hiding God’s Self from us in difficult times. There we read:
And God said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. ( Deuteronomy 32:20)
In reference to this passage we learn in the Gemara that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania was once at the Roman emperor Hadrian‘s court. An unbeliever gestured to Rabbi Yehoshua in sign language that the Jewish people was a people from whom their God had turned God’s face. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania gestured in reply that God’s hand was stretched over the Jewish people. AS it says in Isaiah, “And I have covered you in the shadow of My hand.” (Isaiah 51:16 ) Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua what unbeliever had said. Rabbi Yehoshua told the emperor what unbeliever had said and what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied. They then asked the unbeliever what he had said, and he told them. And then they asked what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied, and the unbeliever did not know. They decreed that a man who does not understand what he is being shown by gesture should hold conversations in signs in front of the emperor, and they led him forth and executed him for his disrespect to the emperor (Chagigah 5 a-b)
This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes that comes in various forms about the silent debate between the Rabbi and the Pope. One version goes that several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he’d have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews
won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they’d have to convert or leave.
The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a ‘silent’ debate. On the chosen day the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy .
Later the Cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened. The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there
is still only one God common to both our faiths. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that
God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and host to show that through the perfect
sacrifice Jesus has atoned for our sins, but the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue.”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he’d won. “I haven’t a clue,” said the rabbi. “First, he told me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here.” “And then what?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said the rabbi. “He took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”
As evident in the both stories, God works in mysterious ways and we can never be sure that we are communicating effectively if we are limited to using gestures. So while it is true that I like many I often experience our age as a time in which God’s face is hidden, I can also say with confidence that I do not understand God’s “gestures”. Far be it from me to claim to understand these gestures in front of the King. And who knows, maybe God does not want to drive us away, maybe God just wants a break for lunch.