Do you remember this experiment with babies that you learned about in developmental psychology class years ago as an undergraduate? Place a brightly colored object like a toy or a bottle in front of a baby’s face. His or her face will of course light up, and if the baby has sufficient dexterity, he or she will reach out and grab it. Now, place a piece of cardboard in front of the object so that the baby can no longer see it. Before the age of about 12 months, the child will quickly lose interest, assuming that the object is no longer there, or perhaps was never there to begin with. From a year of age onward, the child will begin to look for the object, perhaps even growing sad, restless and whiny when he or she cannot find it. Developmental psychologists refer to this phenomenon as object permanence: the cognitive ability to hold something in your memory and even to be able to figure out logically where it may have gone to, when it is no longer in your sight. Object permanence is the reason why young children at a certain age love the game Peek-A-Boo: when I hide my face from the child with whom I am playing, that child knows I am still there behind my hands, and is eagerly anticipating my return. The great psychologist, Jean Piaget, was able to define formally the different stages of cognitive and intellectual development in the life of a human being. He called this earliest stage at which object permanence begins to develop, sensorimotor: from ages 0-2, we are trying to figure out the relationship between ourselves, our bodies, and the world around us. We begin life quite egocentrically, not understanding that we and the world are not the same thing, and that it does not revolve around us. As we grow older, we recognize that the world and its objects are separate from us, and that just because we do not see something does not mean it is not there.
I always think about these developmental insights when I come to the high holiday season and read this double portion, Nitzavim-VaYelekh. This is because of the haunting idea, hastarat panim, the hiding of God’s face, that is found in the parshah and in psalm 27, the psalm for the high holidays. In Deuteronomy 31, after Moses warns the people about the consequences for violating the covenant, God tells him: “…My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them…And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.’ Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” Torah commentators are generally of two minds about what hiding God’s face is. Some, like Rashi, say that God is threatening to ignore the people and to refrain from watching over them. Others, like the early Targumim (who translated the Torah into Aramaic) say that God is threatening literally to remove God’s presence from the people. The first interpretation focuses on the psychological dimensions of God’s absence: the feeling that we are abandoned. The second focuses on the ontological –or spiritual- dimensions of God’s absence: the fact that God has abandoned us. Whatever the hiding of God’s face means, for the Torah, it is the result of the Israelites’ decision to worship and serve other gods, a punishment for their behavior.
Psalm 27 takes a different approach to the hiding of God’s face. After telling us that God literally hides him in the hiddenness of God’s tent (yastireini b’seter ohalo) from his enemies, the psalmist turns to God with plaintive desperation: “To you my heart says, ‘Seek my face!’ O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help, do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.” For the psalmist, God’s hiding of God’s face is a source of terror, the adult spiritual equivalent of a child experiencing the most primitive separation anxiety when his or her parent walks away. There is no morally causal reason for the hiding of God’s face, no explanations are to be found in the individual’s behavior: after all, the psalmist is called God’s servant, hardly a term for someone who has sinned against God.
Whichever of these interpretations and contexts for understanding Hastarat Panim we connect with, we are still missing an important piece of the puzzle that the idea of object permanence can help us to find. Note what is implied in these both of these scriptural passages: the hiding of God’s face is real and effective because we experience it as such. Paradoxically, we are bereft and terrified at God’s hiddenness precisely because, like the child who has learned object permanence, we expect God to be there, always, behind the hiddenness. In fact, unlike the young infant who loses interest in the bright object behind a screen, we know that God is there, even as we seek God out in such desperation. So, whether we do wrong and alienate ourselves from God, or we just feel terribly disconnected and hidden from life, God is there always, and always waiting with love, patience, and compassion. Our perceptions of God’s fluid presence and absence are the result of our many experiences. Our deeper perceptions of God’s permanence lie just beneath them, waiting for us to take them out and affix them as wings that carry us home to God. Shabbat shalom.