This pasuk of “anochi haster astir” is tremendously difficult because it comes on the heels of Bnei Yisrael admitting that “ki ain Elokai b’kirbi metza’uni hara’os ha’eileh,” a seeming admission of guilt and wrongdoing. Why does Hashem respond to that with greater hester panim even than before? We’ve discussed this question before, but I want to mention an approach of the Abarbanel that I think rings especially true in our times. It could be al pi peshuto the simplest answer is that the expression “ain Elokai b’kirbi” is actually referring to the avodah zarah idols. Elokai should be with a lower-case e and read as chol. The people are not confessing, but are actually ascribing what goes wrong to their avodah zarah abandoning them. The difficulty is that idolatry is not usually referred to as "ELokai" (though my wife pointed out that when Lavan accuses Ya'akov of stealing his terafim, that is the word he uses). Abarbanel suggests that the previous pesukim reveal that Bnei Yisrael were guilty of two sins: 1) worshipping avodah zarah; 2) not serving G-d properly. These are not exactly two sides of the same coin. When Bnei Yisrael confess, "Ain Elokai b'kirbi," they are taking responsibility for sin #2 -- they are acknowledging that they need to do better in their avodas Hashem. What they fail to admit, and fail to acknowledge, is sin #1 -- that they are also guilty of idolatry. What they fail to admit and fail to acknowledge is that you can't have more avodas Hashem without giving up the lifestyle of avodah zarah. You can't be poseiach al shtei ha'se'ifim or have a shutfus. It's either/or. This is hard to swallow. No one is an oveid avodah zarah, but the same idea can express itself more subtly. We all want to strive for more in avodas Hashem, but we don't want to sacrifice our enjoyments or face our shortcomings either. We prefer to ignore the negative within and instead just focus on doing more good in some way or other and think that absolves us. As R' Yisrael Salanter put it, it's easier to learn shas than to correct one midah. "Ain Elokai b'kirbi" so I have to take on another seder, write a bigger check to charity, daven a little slower, etc. -- all wonderful things, but if the same person ignores the avodah zarah/midah ra'ah that remains within and does nothing to correct it, he is doing half a job that is as good as no job. Again, a very hard lesson to swallow.
So I don't want to enter Yom Kippur on a negative note, so on to something a little more positive, something I find a little scary. Commenting on the phrase, “Anochi haster astir panei mei’hem,” (31:18) GR”A asks why the Torah uses the double-language of “haster astir.” He answers that the Torah is telling is that it is the very fact that Hashem is hiding himself, the “astir panay mei’hem,” which is what is being concealed with “hester.” We think of all kinds of reasons to explain what happens to ourselves, to our families, to those living in Eretz Yisrael – the economy is bad, anti-semitism, politics, etc. We invent a reason for everything. The only reason we don’t consider is the real reason: Hashem has removed his hashgacha because we are not doing what he wants. The real reason remains hidden; we have a mental block that prevents us from thinking about it. This part of the GR”A, the pshat in the pasuk, I think is pretty well known, but my impression is that the rest of the GR”A’s comment, what I call the scary part, is less well known. The GR"A continues and asks why it is that Hashem conceals from us the fact that he is concealed and he answers that if we knew what was going on, if we knew we were being punished with hester panim, then we would daven for Hashem to reveal himself, and He would inevitably respond. The only way we can be punished by the removal of hashgacha is if we don’t daven to prevent it.
It’s up to us – all we have to do is daven for Hashem to remove this block of hester panim and whatever gezeiros are lined up against us will be removed.
On Yom Kippur night one of the first things we say after kol nidrei is the pasuk, “VaYomer Hashem salachti k’devarecha.” This pasuk is Hashem’s response to Moshe’s tefilah to forgive Bnei Yisrael for the cheit ha’meraglim. Of all the pesukim and tefilos we could possibly use to “lead off” our Yom Kippur, why is this the one that is chosen? In one of R’ Ya’akov Shapira’s sichot he makes reference to a Sefas Emes in the likutim for Parshas Shelach that may answer this question. The Rishonim point out that Moshe invokes some, but not all of the 13 midos in that tefilah for forgiveness. There are various explanations as to why Moshe omitted some of the midos, e.g. Ramban explains that Moshe could not invoke the midah of “emes” because the meraglim were guilty of saying sheker about Eretz Yisrael. Whatever the explanations, bottom line is that Moshe pulled his punches. Hashem’s responded: “Salachti k’devarecha” -- exactly what you asked for, "k'devarecha," that’s what you will get. Half of a request means half forgiveness, but the slate is not going to be wiped clean. True, Moshe had all kinds of good reasons for not invoking all 13 midos, but af al pi kein… Maybe the lesson is that when you daven, all the reasons and analysis of what you should say and how you should say it don’t matter. When you are in pain and in need, you scream out – you don’t make cheshbonos. That’s what tefilah has to be.
So we learn from the GR”A that the removal of hester panim is completely in our hands if only we ask for it. And we learn from the Sefas Emes that tefilah is not a time to pull punches -– it’s the time to swing for the fences and ask Hashem for anything and everything. That's what we want to remind ourselves of as we enter the most auspicious day of the year.