On Wednesday night, when we’d finished the Rosh Hashanah dishes, Gary and I decided to start watching one of the latest Netflix documentaries – Turning Point, which recounts the events of 9/11, what came before it, and what has happened as a result in terms of the war on terror. We have, of course, seen the images of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania rather than it’s intended target, the Capitol. Yet despite seeing them probably hundreds of times before, we still found ourselves gasping, shocked, unbelieving.
This week a member shared with me his experience of being on the 28th floor of one of the towers, of realising almost immediately that it was a terror attack and of clearing his co-workers off the floor before trudging towards home, through a New York in shock, grief, pain and disbelief, covered in grey ash and fear. I will never forget where I was when I first heard, and then saw what was happening. The waves of fear and confusion that emanated out from the epicentre in east coast America as almost 3000 people lost their lives, over 400 of whom were first responders. 40% of the bodies from that day remain to be identified, a continual trauma for those who lost loved ones, friends and colleagues that day.
Humans were utterly responsible for these evil acts, but it is hard not to ask ‘where is God’ when these heinous crimes occur. One answer is that God was present in the bravery and care of the first responders, in the hospitality strangers showed to one another as they tried to move away from Ground Zero, and in the love and care so many offered in the days after the attack.
Our Torah portion also has an answer for us. It is one that has journeyed through Jewish philosophy in different forms at different times. In Deuteronomy 31:18 we read that God will keep his countenance hidden because of the evils of humans. In Hebrew this idea has come to be known as Hester Panim – or the hiding of God’s face – expressed in the portion as astir panai. Any words we try to find about God is inadequate, and limits God to within the bounds of human language. But as a metaphor, this has become a powerful image in Jewish thought.
We find it in how the Rabbis understand Purim; God was hidden (and hence isn’t mentioned in the story of Purim told in the book of Esther) but acting behind the scenes, perhaps through humanity – through Esther, for example, who the rabbis say has a name that reflects the concept – Esther (they argue) being derived from Hester.
Theologies around the hiding of God’s face during the holocaust are also numerous. Some suggest God was present, but suffering with us. However Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the leading Reform Rabbi of my childhood who had himself survived Auschwitz, famously said ‘In Auschwitz the question was not where is God but where is humanity?’ This too is the question I am left with when once again facing the images of hijackers aiming to cause the greatest destruction of lives possible, and to cause as much fear and terror as possible. As we stand here on Shabbat Tshuva, the Shabbat of return, we must ask ourselves what humanity we can bring to the world around us, bringing God’s presence with it. The overflowing box of donations for Afghan refugees in our lobby is one example of that humanity that gives me huge hope.
A student Rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, Devon Spier, who is also a best selling author and poet, wrote this beautiful poem, which perhaps helps us to remember God through those times of hester panim – the hiding of God’s countenance, something many of us have felt in the last 18 months, on 9/11, and no doubt at countless other times.
You concealed yourself
When our wickedness triumphed.
And some say,
You looked away whenever wickedness triumped over us.
I say, you peeked through divine hands.
And with divine eyes.
Caught glimpses of our persistent goodness.
So that when you withdrew, you also came close.
Handing us Your words. Dressing us in Your truths.
True, we still shroud You in mystery.
But you are always nearby.
We will now turn to words of prayer and memorial…
Devon Spier is an author, rabbinical student and digital theologian, who weaves and teaches others to weave their own theology through poems, prose and digital images. She currently serves as the 2021 Liturgist-in-Residence for the National Havurah Committee and resources Jewish movements, networks and denominations to explore the intersections of hope and hopelessness, trauma and recovery, humour and doubt as well as loneliness and safe-keeping. Utilizing a palette of Torah, personalized psalms and trauma-informed somatic body practice, Devon’s work has been consulted and published by the London School for Jewish Studies, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Liberal Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women. Most recently, Devon is the author of the bestselling book of poetry: ‘Whatever it is, gently: Quiet Meditations for the Noise of the Pandemic’ (2020).