Commentators struggle to understand how Hashem seemingly rejects the nation's repentance, and instead of forgiving them mercifully, slaps them in the face with further punishment. Ralbag and R"A Saba challenge the assumption that penitence averts punishment, concluding that this is simply not always true. Others prefer to resolve the theological problem by reinterpreting either the description of the nation's confession, or that of Hashem's punishment. Thus, Ramban assumes that the verses must be speaking of an inadequate repentance which necessitated further punitive measures, while Ibn Ezra suggests that the verses do not really speak of punishment at all.
Punishment Despite Repentance
Hashem will continue to punish the Children of Israel for their sins, even after they repent.
"וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – R"A Saba understands this to be a full confession, but he posits that a confession and repentance are not always enough to spare one from punishment.
"וְאָמַר... הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת " – Ralbag asserts that, in this statement, the people recognize that they deserved Hashem's absence and the ensuing trials, and this recognition leads them to return to Hashem.
"אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם" – Despite the nation's repentance, Hashem continues to punish them, even more harshly than before, because sometimes atonement can come only via suffering. Although the nation had already been exiled (Vayikra 26:33), Hashem will now make them wander to yet other countries where they will be subjected to even crueler treatment.
"וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי" – Ralbag explains that despite the nation's return, Hashem will continue to hide His face as a punishment for the people's original sins of idolatry.
"אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – The Tzeror HaMor appears to understand these words to mean that even though the nation will submit to Hashem, that alone is not enough to atone for their sins.3
Conflicting promises – This approach might suggest that Devarim 30's promise that repentance will be accepted refers to a different stage of the process than that described in Vayikra 26 and Devarim 31. While the latter refer to a point in which the nation still requires punitive measures, Devarim 30 might be speaking of the point in which the nation has already suffered adequately for their sins.4
Power of repentance – According to this position, repentance is not a cure-all potion preventing punishment. Sometimes, confession alone does not suffice to gain atonement; it is only through further suffering that one can achieve full penance for one's deeds. R"A Saba points to the sin of מעילה in Bemidbar 5 as a parallel case, in which despite one's confession of guilt, one is nonetheless penalized and required to pay an extra fifth.5
When was the prophecy fulfilled?
Judges – Ralbag maintains that the prophecy of Devarim was fulfilled in the era of the Shofetim. In that era, the nation worshiped idolatry, were delivered into the hands of their enemies, and then despite their crying out, Hashem refused to listen, telling the people, "לֹא אוֹסִיף לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם".
Contemporary – R. Saba sees the fulfillment of the curse in Vayikra in his own time period. The Jews of Castille, who had lived in exile like royalty, were expelled to Portugal where the conditions immediately deteriorated, and from there they were exiled once again to surrounding Arab lands. These Jews were righteous people, who had confessed their wrongdoings numerous times, but were nevertheless punished for the previous offenses of others.
The verses speak only of repentance which is either inadequate or lacking altogether, and thus additional punishment is both appropriate and necessary.
"וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – This approach reinterprets this verse to mean that there was no meaningful confession:
Words without actions – According to Ramban, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, the confession was not a complete return to Hashem. Although the people recognized and admitted to their sins, this was not accompanied by a change of ways.9
Only leaders confess – Abarbanel and Seforno suggest that only the leaders of the generation such as Daniel, Ezra, and Nechemyah confessed,10 but the laypeople did not.11
Merely a command – According to the Biur and R. D"Z Hoffmann, the word "וְהִתְוַדּוּ" does not mean "and they will confess", but rather "and they shall confess".12 As such, it is not a description of what the people will do, but only a Divine prescription of what they should do, and it says nothing about their actual repentance.
"וְאָמַר... הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת " – These words, too, do not represent a sincere repentance, and according to some commentators even attest to further sinning:
Partial or insincere repentance – Ramban suggests that this verse, like the one in Vayikra, refers to only a partial repentance, a recognition of wrongdoing without a full correction thereof.13 In contrast, R. Saba14 and Abarbanel posit that the nation might have repented for only some ("עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי"), but not all of their sins.15 Alternatively, R. Saba suggests that the repentance is not considered sincere since it came only in response to suffering ("מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת") and was thus coerced.16
No repentance – According to Seforno, the people's statement is not a confession of wrongdoing at all, but rather merely a recognition that Hashem is not with them. In fact, this feeling that Hashem has abandoned them, precludes them from even trying to repent.17
Continued sin – Shadal goes a step further, positing that the nation's words are not only lacking in sincere confession, but actually constitute a complaint.18 The Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that the speech is itself sinful, as it attest to a lack of belief in Hashem's providence ("עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי").19 Abarbanel, in contrast, sees in the people's statement proof of their continued idolatry. The phrase "אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי" refers, not to Hashem, but to the foreign gods whom they felt that they had not adequately worshiped.20
"אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם" – Most of these commentators view this verse as a further punishment, aimed at bringing the nation to a fuller repentance.21 Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel posit that Hashem will send the nation into yet another exile, while Ramban and Seforno assume that He will bring them back to Israel, but the land will still be controlled by their enemies.22
"וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי" – Most of these exegetes23 view this as a fair punishment for those who have not fully repented, or who might have even continued in the idolatrous ways.24 They differ, though, in their specific understandings of the concept of "הסתר פנים":
Loss of providence – Abarbanel and Seforno understand Hashem's hiding of his face to mean a loss of providence and protection.25 While Abarbanel sees in this a two-fold punishment ("הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר") for the nation's crimes of idolatry, Seforno instead emphasizes that this does not mean that Hashem's presence would not be amidst the nation, only that He would no longer be willing to save them from the evil they bring upon themselves.26
Lack of redemption – Ramban contrasts this "hiding of Hashem's face" with the earlier mention in verse 17 and suggests that this is a less harsh form. It speaks only of Hashem hiding His face of redemption, but does not mean that His absence will bring in its wake extra suffering.27
Ignoring of sins – R"A Saba offers a unique explanation, suggesting that "הסתר פנים" refers to Hashem's hiding His face from the people's sins. He views this as a punishment since it gives the sins time to accumulate, thereby making the eventual cumulative punishment even harder to bear.28
Lack of prophecy – Netziv suggests that the "הסתר פנים" is expressed through an absence of prophecy (and thus a lack of connection to Hashem).
"אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – Ramban maintains that the verse means that the nation will be in the land of their enemies until either they fully repent or their sin is atoned for by adequate punishment.29 Abarbanel, in contrast, understands that Hashem is telling the nation that they have a choice between a second exile or total repentance which will atone for their sins.30
Conflicting promises – This position could explain that the verses in Devarim 30 and elsewhere which promise reconciliation after penitence refer to a case in which there is complete and sincere repentance, unlike that found here.31
Power of repentance – This position assumes that if a nation fully and sincerely repents of its sins, Hashem will no longer punish them. A mere verbal confession alone, though, does not suffice.
When was the prophecy fulfilled?
Vayikra – According to Ramban and Seforno, the rebuke in Vayikra materialized during the end of the first Temple period, when the nation was exiled to Babylonia. The confession refers to that of the leaders of the exile (Daniel, Ezra, and Nechemyah), and the sending to an enemy land refers to returning to an Israel ruled over by enemies.32
Devarim – Ramban asserts that the rebuke of Devarim, in contrast, refers to the present exile. Netziv, though, maintains that this specific prophecy was fulfilled already in the period of the Judges when the nation felt that Hashem had rejected them by hiding His face,33 leading them into a cycle of idolatry.34
No Further Punishment
Hashem does not punish the nation after it repents, and verses implying otherwise must be reinterpreted.
"וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – These sources understand this to refer to a full and sincere confession and return to Hashem.
"וְאָמַר... הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱ-לֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת" – According to this approach, these words, too, constitute a confession and true repentance.39
"אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם" – According to these commentators, thisverse does not speak of any new punishment for the nation. The exegetes differ, though, regarding to what exactly it does refer:
Past actions of Hashem – According to Ibn Ezra, these words speak of what Hashem had done in the past, not what He will do in the future.
Part of nation's confession – According to Ralbag,40 HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, and R. D"Z Hoffmann, this statement is part of the confession of the nation.41 The people not only admit their own wrongdoing, but also justify Hashem's punishment.42
Consolation – Netziv suggests that the words are actually comforting for the nation.43 According to him, the word "בְּקֶרִי" means "contrary to".44 Since the people felt that Hashem could not have providence over them in exile, Hashem tells them that, in contrast to what they think ("בְּקֶרִי"), He will, in fact, care for them even there. He will bring them under his personal providence ("וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם") even in the countries of their enemies.
"וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי" – This approachattempts to read the punitive connotation of these words out of the verse:45
Nation's confession – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah suggests that these words are a continuation of the nation's confession from the previous verse.46 The people acknowledge not only their own crimes, but that Hashem's hiding of His face was a deserved punishment for their sins.47
Hiding of anger – The Tzeror HaMor, in contrast, maintains that this statement represents Hashem's words but that He is speaking of hiding his face of anger, despite the nation's previous idolatry.48
Most of these commentators can explain, like Ibn Ezra, that the verse is saying that the nation's confession and the punishment that Hashem had previously wrought will lead to submission and atonement.49
Netziv, instead, asserts that after the nation recognizes that their confession was heard and feels Hashem's providence in exile, they will submit to His will and recognize that there is value in keeping Torah outside of Israel as well. This will then enable them to fully repent of all sins against Hashem.50
Conflicting promises – According to this approach there is no contradiction between the verses in Devarim 30 and Vayikra 26 / Devarim 31. In all of these passages, the repentance is accepted and punishment is averted.
Power of repentance – This position is driven by the belief that Hashem does not punish one who has sincerely repented.