Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Prayer for Hoshanna Rabba 5777: "Do not Hide Your Face from me!"

This evening is the last day that we will be saying Psalm 27, לדוד ה' אורי וישעי this year. As I recited the psalm and thought about its words, I suddenly sensed a particular aptness and poignancy to this prayer, a relevance specifically for Hoshanna Rabba. Let me share this thought with you.

לדוד ה' – Psalm 27 – is a Psalm which takes us on an intriguing and maybe perplexing emotional journey. Let me explain. The first half expresses Man’s security and confidence in God’s absolute protection:

The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
2When evil men assail me to devour my flesh—
it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
3Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear;
should war beset me, still would I be confident.

Moreover, Man is invited to God’s house, God’s Temple. On the one hand, man is safe there; on the other, he has a spiritual opportunity to encounter God’s presence and beauty.

4One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.
5He will hide me in His shelter (Sukka) on an evil day,
grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
6Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout;
I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy (Terua), singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.

This is the first half of the Psalm. But suddenly, at this point the author of the Psalm experiences a bewildering loss of confidence, a sudden attack of insecurity:

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.
8 In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!”
O Lord, I seek Your face.
9Do 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.

Suddenly, bewilderingly, the author feels that God has left him; he seeks mercy, asks God not to hide his face, is frightened of God’s abandonment.

Everyone who studies this chapter asks themselves as to this perplexing and sudden transition from security to helplessness, from God’s presence to His absence, from Man’s trust in God’s nearness to the sense that God is distant.

As I ponder the past month – we started selichot exactly a month ago – I feel palpably the rhythm of this perek. We have spent a month in God’s presence, in His tent so to speak. We began with selichot, and then crowning God as king, standing before Him in Judgement, but also in communion as we recognized that “we are your people and you are our God”. And after the tense standing before God during the Days of Penitence, we have now expressed our security in God’s protection by dwelling for a week in the Sukka, literally “to live in the house of the Lord … He will hide me in His shelter (Sukka) … grant me the protection of His tent.”

And now it is about to end. After a month in God’s presence, we are approaching the close of these days, and we wonder how we will manage without the immediacy of all the mitzvoth that have set God before us during this month. We feel: “O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me!” As we turn our sights to the cold winter months we want God’s presence to continue with us.

And now Psalm 27 doesn’t seem dissonant. It seems the perfect prayer for Hoshanna Rabba! It expresses the emotions of this day so palpably.

And suddenly I thought: How lucky we are that on the very next day, on Sheminni Atzeret, we start reading the Torah. With the end of the chagim, God’s presence loses its immediacy, but we begin again to read His Torah. His wisdom and guidance are with us in the form of the חיי עולם which he has נטע בתוכנו. As we open Bereshit, we will seek new wisdom from God and the feeling of His presence by our study of Torah.

Chag Sameach!