Join our email list

Ha’azinu: Human Existence in an Age of Divine Concealment

We must view our characteristic, as Jews, as &quotchildren with no loyalty in them,&quot as both a result and a possibility - and therefore as a reality which is not a necessary one
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Ha’azinu: Human Existence in an Age of Divine Concealment

One of the most heartbreaking verses regarding the relationship between God and people is found in our parashah, in God’s declaration: “I will hide My countenance from them” (Devarim 32:20). In talmudic literature, Rabbi Meir is described as one who deals with the reality this verse reflects and, at the same time, strives to make sense of the world around him and offer a way of living under the shadows of divine concealment.

Rabbi Meir’s philosophy is presented through an interpretation to the verse, a verse he uses in order to understand people’s essence by interpreting their names. In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah, the source from which Rabbi Meir learns how to homilize names – and perhaps also why this skill is needed – is described in the following words:

Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:9 [59a]

Said Rabbi Yassa: In four places it says “make [for] yourself.” In three [the verses] makes explicit and in one they don’t: “make yourself an ark of gopher wood”; “make yourself two silver trumpets”; “make yourself flint knives”; “make yourself a seraph, serpent, figure,” he did not explain. Said Moshe: Its essence is not a snake, nahash? Therefore “Moshe made a copper, nehoshet, serpent, nahash.” From here, Rabbi Meir would interpret names: One man was named Kidor. Rabbi Meir said: he is an evil man, for it says “for they are a treacherous generation, ki dor]”.

Rabbi Yassa explains that in three of the four places in which the phrase “make for yourself” appears, there is an explicit statement, i.e., there is information regarding the nature of the object of the command: Regarding the ark it says that it should be made of “gopher wood,” regarding the trumpets it says “silver,” etc. According to the midrash brought here, Moshe derived the missing information regarding the fourth instance – the seraph -from a precise reading of the words of the verse (a seraph is also called a snake – a nahash – and the word nahash apparently leads Moshe to understand that the seraph must be made of copper – nehoshet). It is from here that Rabbi Meir learned to interpret names – how to interpret them, and perhaps also the need for their interpretation. In the example cited in the midrash, Rabbi Meir interprets the name of a man called Kidor. Based on his name, Rabbi Meir explains that he is an evil man, since the verses teach “for (ki) they are a treacherous generation (dor).”

In practice, however, Moshe and Rabbi Meir engage in inverted processes: Moshe learns new information regarding the subject of the verses using information taken from outside those same verses, whereas Rabbi Meir learns something new about a worldly subject using information taken from the verses themselves. The parallel between the two is that the interpretation and the homiletics are all ways of adding information regarding a given subject using a word from a verse.

As regards our topic, we learn here that “from here Rabbi Meir would interpret names.” A name, per Rabbi Meir, is a significant sign in the world, a symbol that can be interpreted using the text of the Torah.

In our case, the verse utilized by Rabbi Meir is taken from the song of Ha’azinu, from our parashah: “[God] said: I will hide My countenance from them and see how they fare in the end. For they are a treacherous generation, ki dor, children with no loyalty in them” (Devarim 32:20). The topic of this verse is God’s concealment and its roots in the fickle, unbelieving and unfaithful nature of his children. The tension reflected in the verse, between the Israelites’ status as God’s children and their lack of faith, between certainty and doubt, is reflected in Rabbi Meir’s words regarding this verse, found in the Bavli, tractate Kiddushin where Rabbi Meir uses the verse in order to prove that the Israelites are termed “God’s children” whether or not they act as children should, i.e. even if they lack faith:

Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 36a

“You are sons of YHVH your God; When you behave as sons” – you are designated sons; if you do not behave as sons – you are not designated sons: this is Rabbi Yehudah’s view. Rabbi Meir said: In both cases you are called sons, for it is said… “They are sons with no loyalty in them.”

A similar tension can be found in Rabbi Meir’s homily in the story brought above from the Yerushalmi. In this story, too, Rabbi Meir reveals the real character of a man who stands before him using a clue (the man’s name), which he interprets with the help of a verse which speaks of God’s concealment. The use of this verse in this context juxtaposes the uncertainty of the meaning of names and the uncertainty due to God’s concealment, and raises the question of whether God’s concealment is actually the source of uncertainty in the world.

It appears that in order to deal with this uncertainty, Rabbi Meir calls for a precision in interpreting names. This precision demands a retroactive understanding of the meaning of names, a perception of them as clues to the nature of those upon which they have been bestowed.

The verse through which Rabbi Meir derives Kidor’s nature deals with divine concealment, and raises the question of whether Rabbi Meir is capable of thus interpreting the verse because of something in his own nature – as a faithful, steady believer – or whether the tool of precise reading of the biblical text is one that is, conversely, given to those of a more unsteady nature following this divine concealment?

In a story that appears in Bavli Yoma (83b), we again hear of a meeting between Kidor and Rabbi Meir. In this story, Kidor is an evil innkeeper, who receives his guests’ wallets for safekeeping – apparently because Shabbat is fast approaching – and does not return them to their owners:

Talmud Bavli Yoma 83b

R. Meir and R. Yehudah and R. Yosi were on a journey together

R. Meir always paid close attention to people’s names, whereas R. Yehudah and R. Yosi paid no such attention to them.

Once, as they came to a certain place they looked for a lodging and as they were given it, they said to him [the innkeeper]: What is your name?

He replied: Kidor.

Then he [R. Meir] said: Therefrom it is evident that he is a wicked man, for it is said: “For they are a treacherous generation [ki-dor]”

R. Yehudah and R. Yosi entrusted their purses to him; R. Meir did not entrust his purse to him

In the morning they [the Rabbis] said to him, ‘Give us our purses.’ He said: There never was such a thing!

R. Meir then said to them: Why don’t you pay attention to people’s names?

They said: Why have you not told this [before], Sir?

He answered: consider this but a suspicion. I would not consider this a definite presumption!

In this story, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi [1] are walking together, [2] and are divided regarding the question of the significance of names: Rabbi Meir believes there is significance to names, and that they can serve as signs regarding the world, whereas Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi believe that names are small, mundane details and so they don’t give them significance.

The first scene of the story describes the rabbis’ meeting with their host: “They said to him: what is your name?” The innkeeper’s name, it turns out, is Kidor, and with this revelation the plural questioners become one speaker: “he said.” This speaker reads meaning into the name: “Therefrom it is evident that he is a wicked man, for it is said: ‘For they are a treacherous generation.'”

The three rabbis, as one would expect, each act according to their beliefs: Rabbi Meir, who believes in the meaning of names, does not give the dubious innkeeper his wallet, whereas Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi do. [3]

The remainder of the story reveals a little of what was concealed: The two rabbis ask the innkeeper for their wallets back, and he claims that “there never was such a thing,” i.e. that he never received their wallets and therefore has nothing to return to them. The truth of Rabbi Meir’s reading of the innkeepers name and his interpretation of the situation is revealed.

Rabbi Meir, who hears the discussion between his two friends and the innkeeper, criticizes them and asks them why they decided not to learn about the innkeeper’s nature from his name. The question he poses lays the blame at his friends’ door, but they, too, respond with blame: “Why have you not told us?”

It is unclear whether their accusation is a general one with regards to the interpretation of names, or a specific one, regarding the innkeeper, but in either case, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi point out Rabbi Meir’s selfishness. Rabbi Meir’s answer is: “I consider this but a suspicion. I would not consider that a definite presumption!”, meaning: “I could have told you of a suspicion I had, but could I have told you anything certain?”

This statement of Rabbi Meir’s reveals something very interesting about him: His focus on names raises his suspicions regarding the world around him, but he does not perceive these verbal clues, homilies and interpretations as sufficient to confer certainty. Rabbi Meir suspects as a result of his approach, but does not believe anything based on them. In other words, we now discover that Rabbi Meir, too, is an untrusting child.

This statement of Rabbi Meir’s, alongside the verse that he uses in order to interpret the name Kidor, represent his worldview: Divine concealment means living in a world of suspicions and fears, not one of surety, a life of uncertainty. Therefore, it is possible that the homily on the verse is: “I will hide My countenance from them,” and as a result “[I will] see how they fare in the end,” “for they are a treacherous generation” – and therefore “children with no loyalty in them,” i.e. “children with no loyalty in them” is the result of the treachery, and not its description.

In summary: We have before us a story that suggests an interpretation to the verse in Devarim, “I will hide My countenance from them,” according to which the world is one of divine concealment due to the treachery of God’s children. A world in which the meaning of the small details is unclear, and cannot be viewed as certain. We do, however, have tools that can aid us in understanding the world, tools of uncovering, such as homilies and precise reading of verses. Alongside this, this worldview is accompanied by an awareness that precise readings and homiletic interpretation bring one to a stance of “suspicion,” and not one of certainty, and therefore, to a certain extent, leave people as creatures that are characterized by having “no loyalty.” Divine concealment brings people to a state of uncertainty regarding everything they encounter along their path in life.

How, therefore, must we conduct ourselves in the world? From where can we draw faith, the ability to trust those around us, to judge favorably? Rabbi Meir’s interpretation, alongside the story, teaches us that we must view our characteristic, as Jews, as “children with no loyalty in them,” as both a result and a possibility – and therefore as a reality which is not a necessary one. We are called upon to recognize that, at times, we are like Kidor, children with no loyalty, who cannot be trusted, but sometimes we are like Rabbi Meir, children with no loyalty, who do not trust their surroundings. However, we still have the option of choosing Rabbi Yehudah’s and Rabbi Yosi’s path, and walking it as children who do possess loyalty and faith.

[1] This rabbinic trio is familiar not only because of their shared ordination, which is mentioned in Bavli Yevamot 62b, Sanhedrin 17a, and in other places, but also from stories regarding their halakhic disputes. Sometimes Rabbi Meir holds a singular opinion, like he does in our story, but not always-one example is Tosefta Parah 4:6. Additional sages sometimes join this trio, often including Rabbi Shimon, such as in Tosefta Demai 5:21.

[2]Rabbi Meir’s opinion regarding the advantage of travelling in threes is mentioned in his homily to verses 9-11 in chapter 4 of Kohelet: “Two are better off than on… and a threefold cord,” which appears in Kohelet Rabbah, chapter 4: “Rabbi Meir, when he would see one man leave on a journey, would yell at him: ‘may peace be upon you, man of death; [if he would see] two he would yell at them: ‘peace be on you, men of dispute’; [if he would see] three he would yell at them: ‘peace on you, men of peace.'” For more on Rabbi Meir in general, see Y. Kanovitz, Rabbi Meir (Mosad haRav Kook, Jerusalem 1967) [Hebrew].

[3]This tale might hint at their reason for searching for an inn: The problematic day for carrying money is the same day that is problematic for travelling long distances, Shabbat. It is possible that the rabbis give their money to the innkeeper for safekeeping so that they will not need to deal with it and carry it on Shabbat.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics