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Bringing Down the Shechina

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Book of Exodus comes to an end with the establishment of the Tabernacle in the desert.

In a sense, the consecration of the Tabernacle, and especially the resting of the Shechina within its confines, is a sign of healing in the aftermath of the Golden Calf tragedy. The revelation at Sinai, which was a singular event, becomes institutionalized in the building of the Tabernacle. Nachmanides writes that the sublime secret of the Tabernacle is that the presence of God which hovered about Mount Sinai, now will be placed on "permanent display" in the Tabernacle.

The Torah describes its completion with the following words:

And he erected the court around the Tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the court gate. So Moses finished the work. Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the Tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40:33-38)

The glory of God had entered the building. This was surely seen by the people as a sign of Divine benevolence. God was with the people, His Presence palpable.

A similar description is given of the completion of the permanent address, the Temple in Jerusalem:

Now when Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord's house. And when all the people of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshipped, and praised the Lord, saying, "For he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever." (2 Chronicles 7:1-3)

There was nothing in the Ark save the two tablets of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord. And the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. Then said Solomon, "The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in forever." (1 Kings 8:9-13)


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We see the same pattern. Man reaches out to God from below, and follows the word of God by building the Tabernacle/Temple. The Divine response is to fill the earthly structure with a bit of heaven. The same Divine cloud that hovered on the mountain during the revelation at Sinai was now in Jerusalem.

Both sources speak of man's inability to enter into the newly completed structure. The Talmud questions this by introducing a "contradictory" passage:

Rabbi Zerika asked a question concerning the contradiction of scriptural passages in the presence of Rabbi Eleazar, or, according to another version, he asked the question in the name of Rabbi Eleazar. One passage reads: And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud abode thereon... whereas another verse says: And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud. It teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, took hold of Moses and brought him into the cloud. (Yoma 4b)

The holiness of the situation was so profound that man was unable to enter; God Himself had to lead man in. The Zohar describes the essence of the cloud as a remnant of the primordial light which had all but disappeared long ago:

On the day when the Tabernacle was set up on earth, what do we read concerning it? And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode thereon. (Exodus 40:35). What was that cloud? It was a thread from the side of the primordial light, which, issuing forth joyously, entered the Shechina and descended into the Tabernacle below. After the first day of creation it was never again made fully manifest, but it performs a function, renewing daily the work of creation. (Zohar Exodus 149a)

This description strengthens the understanding that the Book of Exodus is a new beginning, a new creation. The Book of Genesis begins with a resounding Let there be light, but the light is quickly dimmed by the failures of man. Now, at the conclusion of the Book of Exodus, God's final act is in a sense the very same action which began Genesis all those years before.


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There is a third time when man built a structure for the purpose of housing or hosting the Divine essence, yet that description seems somewhat different from the first two. The setting is the end of the exile between the First and Second Temples. Led by Ezra and Zerubavel, the people build the Temple anew:

And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. And the people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. And they offered at the dedication of this house of God one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs; and for a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. And they set the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their courses, for the service of God, at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book(s) of Moses. And the returned exiles kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves, all of them were pure; and they killed the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, and for their brothers the priests, and for themselves. And the people of Israel, who had returned from exile, and all those who had kept themselves apart from the filthiness of the nations of the land to seek the Lord God of Israel, ate, and celebrated the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy; for the Lord had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. (Ezra 6:15-22)

Read on its own, the description seems glorious -- the Temple is rebuilt! The hopes, aspirations and dreams that had kept the people throughout the exile had came to wonderful fruition. Nonetheless, we have an uneasy feeling about the description. Something is missing; where is the Divine response? Where is the cloud, the heavenly expression that God had allowed His presence to return and fill the structure? Regarding God's response the verses offer deafening silence.


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There was a problem with this new Temple. Most of the exiles chose not to return and be a part of this historic project; they chose to remain in exile. A Talmudic sage Resh Lakish (Yoma 9b) opines that the reason the Divine Presence did not dwell on the Second Temple was that the majority of Jews did not care enough to return and take part in the building of the Temple and, by the same token, of the entire land. There was something amiss with the foundation of this Temple. This deficiency was sensed as the foundation was built:

And when the builders laid the foundation of the Temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David, King of Israel. And they sang responsively in praising and giving thanks to the Lord: "For he is good, for his grace endures forever towards Israel." And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chiefs of the fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, though many shouted aloud for joy. And the people could not distinguish the sound of joyful shouting from the sound of people weeping, because the people shouted loudly, and the sound was heard from far away. (Ezra 3:10-13)

The masses cheered in ecstasy. The foundation was set. However, the elders sensed something amiss. Where was the cloud? Where was the Divine glory? Where was the Shechina? It seems that the Second Temple never did reach the spiritual stature of the First Temple or of the Tabernacle.


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The Second Temple did not have a wonderful track record. Soon after being built, during the Greek period, the Temple became defiled to the extent that no holiness could be found, save one flask of oil. The story is well known.

What is [the reason for] Chanukah? For our rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanukah, which are eight, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for one day's lighting only. Yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. In another year these [days] were appointed a festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)

Rabbi Soloveitchik noted an interesting turn of phrase at the conclusion of this passage -- "in another year." At the time, the people did not realize the significance of the events they had witnessed. It is often the case that we have difficulty understanding historic events that unfold before our eyes. At times we need distance in order to gain historical perspective.

The rabbis eventually came to realize that the events of Chanukah should be celebrated. What was the focus of the celebration? The military battle? Surely not, for this battle contained a nasty secret: it began as fratricide -- a veritable civil war. A civil war can be won, but not celebrated. But the miracle of the lights was different. It generated within the people a different response: Perhaps a bit of that Divine light which had been absent for the first few hundred years of the Second Temple's existence had finally come down.


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Now we can also appreciate the name Chanukah, which means consecration. This was the consecration of the Second Temple, for only now had that primordial light, which had dissipated on the very first day of creation, returned to the Temple, and it shone brightly for 8 days. The Shechina was manifest. God was among them, His presence once again palpable.

It is interesting that this light dates back to the first day of creation. By the second day, the power of argument had appeared:

Why is that it was good not written in connection with the second day? Rabbi Yochanan explained, in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Rabbi Halafta: "Because on it the Gehenna (Hell) was created..." Rabbi Hanina said: "Because on it schism came into the world, [as it is written, And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and] let it divide the waters from the waters.'" (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 4:6)

Argument, fighting, murder cause the Shechina to take leave. Perhaps the aftermath of the Chanukah debacle, the attempted introduction of Hellenism in Jewish life with the painful struggle which ensued, caused the Jews to make a commitment to peace. The Second Temple stood until hatred became the order of the day, when schism brought the Temple down and caused the Shechina to be exiled. This Divine light though, is still available.


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The passage in the Zohar introduced above speaks about a thread of this light which is still accessible:

Moreover, whenever the Torah is studied by night, a little thread of this hidden light steals down and plays upon them that are absorbed in their study, wherefore it is written: The Lord command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song is with me (Psalms 42:9) ... (Zohar Exodus 149a)

Learning Torah specifically at night, the time when people cry over the destruction of the Temple, is effective in bringing the light back. Moreover, human behavior can cause more Divine light to shine, or alternatively can cause the light's disappearance. One day, though, this light will shine brightly once again:

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting ... Whereby the Shechina dwelt on the earth, and the unclean spirit, designated "end of all flesh," passed out of the world and disappeared into the cavern of the great abyss. The Holy Spirit had thus sole sway over the world, as Scripture says: Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting. It is further written: And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode thereon. In other words, because the Holy Spirit hovered over the world and the unclean spirit passed out. The wicked, however, draw him again into the world, and if not for them he would completely disappear. But in the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will cause him to pass completely out of the world, as Scripture says: He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth; for the Lord has spoken it (Isaiah 25:8); also, and (I will cause) the unclean spirit to pass out of the land (Zechariah 13:3). Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen and Amen. The Lord will reign for ever. (Zohar Exodus 269a)



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