Bracing For Exile

June 24, 2009

10 min read


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

Exploring the nature of the Shechina, God’s Divine presence.

So Israel set out with all that he had and he came to Beersheba where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, "Jacob, Jacob ... I am the God of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt and I shall also bring you up..." So Jacob arose from Beersheba. The sons of Israel transported Jacob their father... (Genesis 46:1-5)

In this short passage Jacob is referred to by name no less than seven times -- four times he is called Jacob, three times Israel. What is this bewildering switch of identities all about? Who is this man, Jacob or Israel?

Why is Jacob offering sacrifices to the God of Isaac? Why not simply to God?

Why is he offering sacrifices to the God of Isaac? Why not simply to God, or at least to the God of his forefathers, since God is also known as the God of Abraham.

Moreover these sacrifices are unlike any that have been previously mentioned in the Torah. So far it has only referred to olah -- sacrifices that are burnt on the altar in their entirety. But here, the Hebrew word used for sacrifice is zevochim -- a divided sacrifice (also called shlomim). The fat is burned on the altar, but the meat is divided between the officiating priest and the owner, who are both commanded to eat their share. What is the significance of the association of this particular sacrifice with Jacob?

Finally, why does God appear to Jacob in night visions?


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All these difficulties are pondered by the commentators, and their approach to the solution centers around a single theme. In their view, this entire passage describes the spiritual preparation of the Jewish people for the trials they will have to confront during the Egyptian exile.

Nachmanides explains:

Jacob arrived at the meeting as Israel, a name that signifies his ascendancy over all other creatures in the universe whatever the source of their power, be it human or Divine, as stated in Genesis 32:29. But God told him that he was now going into exile and this name was no longer appropriate. For the foreseeable future he will be Jacob, not Israel, as he will live under the domination of a foreign power, Egypt.

Nevertheless, he was also told that he need not fear -- God loves him, as the doubling of his name "Jacob, Jacob" indicates (see Rashi 46:2), and the Shechina, God's Divine Presence, will go down with him to Egypt and stay with him there till the redemption.

Jacob's sacrifices on this occasion established a connection with God that is described in the following passage of Talmud:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai [the author of the "Zohar"] taught: "Come and see how beloved is Israel to the Holy One, the Source of all blessing. Wherever Israel went into exile, the Shechina went along into exile. They went to exile to Egypt, the Shechina went with them as it is written, Did I not appear to your ancestor's family when they were in Egypt [enslaved] to the house of Pharaoh (Samuel 1:2-27. They went to Babylon in exile and the Shechina went with them, as it is written, because of you I was sent to Babylon (Isaiah 43:14). And when they will eventually be redeemed, the Shechina will be redeemed along with them, as it is written, Then the Lord your God will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you (Deut. 30:3). The verb used in the verse is not veheshiv, the proper grammatical way to express bringing back someone else in Hebrew, but veshov which expresses the idea of returning oneself; to teach you that God Himself returns along with Israel from its exiles. (Talmud, Megilah, 29a)

Only after he had attained the assurance of being accompanied into exile by the Shechina from God, was Jacob willing to go down to Egypt to see his lost son Joseph and enter the Egyptian exile. Without this guarantee, despite the hunger prevailing in Canaan, and despite the presence of his beloved son Joseph in Egypt for whom he had pined for 22 long years, he would never have gone down to Egypt willingly. God would have had to drag him down to Egypt in chains.


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But what is the significance of this promise? What is the difference if God Himself goes with Jacob into his exile in the form of the Shechina, or if he merely controls what happens to the Jewish people from a distance? What is more, how is it possible to conceive of God going into exile at all?

The first step in our search for understanding is to attempt to understand what is meant by "the Shechina." Isn't God by any other name just God? Why in fact does God go by such a bewildering number of names?

The holy name Shechina is universally employed in Jewish tradition to describe the Divine Presence that rests on the Temple. (See Nachmanides' introduction to Exodus.) It is a feminine name in Hebrew, a language which, like French for example, assigns masculine or feminine gender to all nouns.

What does masculine and feminine mean in relation to God?

What does masculine and feminine mean in relation to God? Obviously, it refers to a concept rather than to sexual orientation.

"Masculine" stands for the source, or provider of some emanation or force, whereas "feminine" represents the receiver, or destination of the force or emanation that is being provided. These ideas are derived from procreation, the main function of sex differentiation among humans. In the conception of children, the role of the male is to offer or provide seed, while the role of the female is to receive this seed and develop it into a child.

In the tenets of Judaism, God is not a philosophical construct. We can know nothing about God Himself through the exercise of our own mental faculties. How could we? He is infinite and we are finite. At most we can deduce that there must be a creator, otherwise we have no explanation for how the world began.

But this deduction hardly tells us anything about the nature of such a creator, or of His plan or purpose in creating the universe. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, this limitation in the ability of humans to reach out to Him was God's primary purpose in giving us the Torah. Having designed us, God knew very well that we humans were unable to discover how to relate to Him on our own, and as He desired a relationship with us, He gave us the Torah and told us about Himself.

Indeed, God told us a lot about Himself. He told us His names and described his character traits and policies to us in the Torah in great detail, so that we could relate to Him.

But it is one thing to possess the vocabulary with which to describe the infinite, and it is something else entirely to be able to have a real relationship with a Being Who is infinite.

To offer tangible animal sacrifices to an abstract concept in your head is the height of absurdity. This is precisely why we cannot have a Temple at the present time. If we had a Temple, we would have to offer sacrifices in it by the dictates of Jewish law and this we cannot do. For although we know all the names of God written in the Torah, conceptual awareness of God's names is hardly the equivalent of a real relationship with Him.

Inasmuch as people at our present spiritual level can only be aware of God on the level of faith, but cannot detect Him as a palpable Presence that is part of our physical world, we cannot maintain any physical bond with Him at all. We are unable to relate to God through physical acts such as the offering of sacrifices.


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The Divine presence that makes it possible to establish and maintain such a palpable face to face relationship with God is known as the Shechina. The word derives from the Hebrew word shachen, meaning "neighbor." It is through the Divine revelation provided by the Shechina that God becomes our neighbor. In fact, the different names of God each represent different levels of revelation.

We can understand this idea of the Shechina conceptually with the aid of two metaphors.

First metaphor:

Suppose you have a meeting with President Clinton. Such a meeting takes place in the Oval Office and has a preset duration and a fixed agenda. Thus you only have a limited time at your disposal to be with the president and you only have permission to discuss the topic on the agenda. When you walk out of such a meeting, you will not know anything about the president's hobbies or interests, you will know nothing about how he feels about his wife or his mother or any other part of his personal life. Nevertheless, you have clearly had a meeting with the president in person. It was not someone else you were conversing with.

God established a venue (the Temple) and set up a schedule and agenda for meetings.

In the same way, God in His infinite goodness provided an opportunity for us to relate to Him in a way that we are capable. Thus He established a venue (the Temple) and set up a schedule and agenda for meetings. The amount of revelation of the Divine Presence that is displayed at such meetings is tailor designed to suit our spiritual capacity stretched to its maximum. It is with God Himself that we are meeting. But the meetings take place on a spiritual level that is suitable to our spiritual capacities, not His. The Shechina and the Temple go hand in hand.

As an encounter with God also involves the ability to relate to the infinite intellectually, we require the aid of a second metaphor:

Suppose Albert Einstein wanted to explain his theory of relativity to a very bright liberal arts student with absolutely no background in physics or mathematics. He would have to translate the ideas, which, in his mind are in the form of mathematical equations and physical formulae, and express them in vocabulary and concepts that are comprehensible to someone whose background is purely in liberal arts. If he were especially adept at teaching, he would succeed in conveying some idea of the theory of relativity to his audience. The picture of relativity that could be conveyed in such a fashion would be true, and would really express the theory of relativity, not some other concept, but it would obviously fall far short of what Einstein himself understood.

In the same way God invented a language and vocabulary in which He could explain Himself to us in ways that we could really comprehend. The mental picture we have of God is a true picture, even if it necessarily falls short of how God understands Himself. This mental picture of God is also implicit in the idea of the Shechina.

As it is only through the application of these two metaphors that we can comprehend the Divine Presence known as the Shechina. This Divine Presence is obviously not the full equivalent of God Himself. To emphasize the fact that this is a Presence that God assumes, so that He can become our neighbor in some sense and share a common reality with us finite creatures, it is expressed in the feminine. This Presence -- although it is the Presence of God Himself -- is deemed to emanate from a Higher Source, with which we finite creatures cannot be neighbors.


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Armed with this information, we can attack the crux of Jacob's problem in approaching the idea of exile.

If God inhabits a neighborhood, it must be transformed by the fact of His residence. As God's Presence is palpable, the entire neighborhood inevitably becomes suffused with holiness. People become spiritually aware, a Divine serenity descends on the area, the entire physical world becomes elevated. Prophecy is a common phenomenon.

If God inhabits a neighborhood, it must be transformed by the fact of His residence.

All these phenomena are antithetical to exile. In exile, the dominant culture pervades the atmosphere of the neighborhood by definition. The very meaning of exile is that the tone of life is set by the host nation rather than by the Jewish people.

Jacob was afraid of exile. Even if God would watch over the Jewish people from afar, their inner spiritual survival would be put to serious risk. Moving out of God's neighborhood means the loss of emotional contact with God. But spiritual survival requires the maintenance of precisely such contact. In order to survive exile, the Jewish people must be given some way to maintain their relationship with God. The Shechina must accompany them into exile.


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If we look around the world and examine the lives of all humans that are striving to reach holiness, we find that they all have something in common, no matter what religion or philosophy they formally espouse. People who strive for holiness inevitably adopt very ascetic lifestyles. They take on vows of poverty and chastity, they fast and meditate, they live apart from other human beings in separate enclaves. They seem to sense that contact with God mandates that the physical world be entirely consumed on the altar of self-sacrifice. They instinctively feel that they should become olah sacrifices.

Indeed, Isaac is called an olah temimah, a sacrifice entirely pure of blemish. (Genesis raba 64:3) Jacob pleaded with God to make himself accessible without the need for such heroic measures. He wanted to offer a shlomim, a divided sacrifice. He wanted to be able to cling to God and to holiness through the food he found on his own table.

If he and the Jewish people were to have any chance of surviving the 210-year sojourn in Egypt spiritually, they must have the ability to remain God's neighbors immersed in the atmosphere of a foreign culture. They must have the ability to retain their vibrant emotional attachment to God through the mundane activities of their everyday lives.

In exile, God's Presence cannot pervade the neighborhood. At best, it could remain detectable only in the privacy of the Jewish home.

Nachmonides quotes the opinion of the Talmud (Zevochim, 116a) that until Jacob, all the sacrifices mentioned in the Torah were olah sacrifices. Jacob was the first to offer the shlomim sacrifice. He requested that the God of his father Isaac -- who was the very personification of the olah sacrifice -- agree to be his neighbor even through the divided sacrifice.


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God appeared to Jacob in a night vision. This is because exile is represented by darkness. In exile, it is never evident that we Jews actually live in God's neighborhood. Any vision we have of God in exile is by definition a night vision. The world outside is spiritually dark for us. Ostensibly the Jewish people appear to have been banished from the warm protection offered by God's Presence. We are oppressed, persecuted and often slaughtered. God seems to have abandoned us.

God promised Jacob that the Shechina would accompany us into exile.

But God promised Jacob that the Shechina would accompany us into exile. The night vision of the Shechina has kept us spiritually alive through the travails of the last two thousand years. Somehow, we have never felt abandoned to a degree that could extinguish the warmth of the inner flame of the Presence of the Shechina within us.


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Jacob has two names because he relates to the Shechina in two different ways. When the Shechina moves into his neighborhood in the open and proudly proclaims God's neighborly feelings, Jacob is known as Israel. When the neighborly relationship is concealed and restricted to night visions he is called Jacob.

The world was created in seven days -- the seventh day, the Shabbat, representing the creation of the world's ultimate destination. According to Jewish tradition, it will stand for six thousand years in the form with which we are familiar, and for another thousand when it will resemble Shabbat.

In mystical thought the seven days and seven thousands parallel the lower seven sefirot -- the Divine manifestations of God in the world. Of these, the first three refer to the inner character traits of Divinity, while the last four represent the methods of interaction between Divinity and the outside world.

On the spiritual level of the inner sefirot, Jacob is always Israel. It is only towards the outside that he appears as Jacob. Of the seven times he is mentioned in this passage, there are four Jacobs and three Israels.

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