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The Shechinah: The Name and the Presence

By: Rav Chaim Kanterovitz

Ramban in his introduction to the book of Shemot explains that the books of the Chumash have names given by chazal, the sages, which describe their very essence. The book of Breishit is called by Chazal Sefer Yetzira the book of creation, creation of the world and the lives of the Forefathers and the creation of our nation, whereas the book of Shemot is known by Chazal as Sefer HaGeulah meaning the book of redemption. The theme of the book is the Galut – Exile of Egypt and the Geulah the redemption from that Exile. Ramban suggests that although we may have thought that the Geulah was complete at a certain stage of the narrative such as at the conclusion of the splitting of the Reed Sea this was not the case. Rather the Geulah was only to be completed when the Mishkan was constructed and the Shechinah rested there. The reason he gives is that the Forefathers, the Avot, were at a level of relationship with the Shechinah where Hashem's presence rested upon their tents. Accordingly the Jewish people were only to achieve Geulah when they re-achieved this very same relationship with Hashem. Therefore, Geulah in a sense can be described by this Ramban not as Redemption but possibly as Restoration, restoration to our former spiritual glory only to be achieved at the conclusion of the book at the end of the portion of Pekudei when the Shechinah rests upon the Mishkan once the construction process was concluded.

In our Parsha the Torah describes the Shechinah as the presence of Hashem as it says:

I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel and I shall be their G-d, They will know that I am Hashem their G-d who took them out of Egypt in order to dwell in their midst I am the Lord their G-d. (Shemot 29:45-46)

Theologically speaking there is much debate amongst the earlier commentators as to the definition of the presence of Hashem in the form of the word the Shechinah. What was to be found in the Mishkan?

In the book of Devarim the Torah shifts from saying that the Shechinah will dwell in the Mishkan and describes the following:

You shall go to the place that Hashem shall choose from amongst the tribes to place his name there, there shall seek him. (Devarim 12:5)

The difference here between our Parshah and the book of Devarim is that whilst in our Parshah the Torah says that Hashem will dwell there and uses the name the Shechinah as a description of Hashem's presence, in the book of Devarim it is Hashem's name that shall be housed there rather than Hashem himself.

Rambam in several places discusses these issues (See Laws of Foundations of Torah 1:8-9 as well as the Guide Part 1: Chap 27 as examples). Whilst it is not in the scope of this Dvar Torah to discuss all the details of the deliberation in each source save to say that to Rambam Hashem is clearly not G-d forbid a mere idea, however He is a non – physical reality. To attempt to describe Hashem within space , to ascribe a specific location to Hashem, is a theological error.

If so how does Rambam understand the verses in the Torah and the distinction between the name of Hashem and the presence of Hashem, the Shechina?

Rambam speaks of “Or Nivra” a creating light and “Kavod Nivra” creating glory. According to Rambam to my understanding the Shechinah is a divinely created entity distinct from, for example, other celestial creations such as an “angel” for it symbolizes Hashem's concern and intense individual interest in the Jewish people.

So that when the verses speak of Hashem dwelling in their midst it is to be understood, teaches Rambam, as a figure of speech as it were and that Hashem is represented by an object or structure such as the Mishkan or the Aron.

Possibly according to this school of thought when Moshe Rabbeninu explains the meaning behind the instruction of Hashem in the book of Shemot he explains it by means of Hashem's name in order to make the understanding of such a lofty concept accessible.

Ramban however fundamentally disagrees with Rambam and sees the Shechinah as the very presence of Hashem in our midst (See Ramban Breishit 46:1). In a brilliant argument he cites a verse which Moshe cries out to Hashem himself following the sin of the Golden Calf and Hashem informing Moshe that from now on an angel shall guide the Jewish people in our journey in lieu of Hashem himself.

If you do not come with us we shall not leave this place. (Shemot 33:15)

So argues Ramban it must be that it was Hashem himself that led the Jewish people throughout our journey and it was only when the structure that housed his presence was complete that the Sefer, the book of Shemot, the book of redemption, could be completed and the Shechinah is indeed Hashem's very presence in our midst.


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