The Shechinah in Exile

A Classic Repost in honor of Tisha B’Av:

The concept of a compassionate and personal G-d is not foreign to Rabbinic thought. One particularly interesting example is the concept of “the Shechinah in Exile.”

According to the Tanya[1] (quoting the Gemara), “When they [the Israelites] were exiled to Edom, the Shechinah went with them.”[2]

I find this to be a very powerful idea. It is a picture of HaShem not as being distant, but as rather very near to us. It is a very personal conception of G-d – an idea that G-d suffers along with Israel and is exiled alongside the Jewish people. That G-d chooses to be exiled along with His people. In thinking about this concept, I cannot help but think about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of “G-d in search of man.”[3] That more than we think we are pursuing G-d, G-d is actually in pursuit of us. And not only is this a G-d who pursues us, but is so moved by, and with us, that G-d too is exiled along with Israel.

This idea is actually rooted in Scripture. In several places we find references to G-d’s presence going into exile with Israel, for example:

Genesis 46:4

ד  אָנֹכִי אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ. 4 I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’

Ezekiel 11:16

טז  לָכֵן אֱמֹר, כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה כִּי הִרְחַקְתִּים בַּגּוֹיִם וְכִי הֲפִיצוֹתִים בָּאֲרָצוֹת; וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט בָּאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ שָׁם. 16 therefore say: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they are come;

This very personal conception of a compassionate G-d is also a popular motif within Midrash. This is especially true within a particular group of texts from Eichah Rabbah regarding “Rachel Weeping.” These texts clearly demonstrate HaShem’s compassion over Israel where G-d is described as weeping alongside Rachel:

כיון שראה אותם, הקב”ה מיד, “ויקרא ה’ אלוהים צבאות ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד ולקרחה ולחגור שק.” ואלמלא מקרא שכתוב, אי אפשר לאמרו. והיו בוכין והולכין משער זה לשער זה כאדם שמתו מוטל לפניו. והיה הקב”ה סופד ואומר אוי לו למלך שבקטנותו הצליח ובזקנותו לא הצליח.

“As soon He saw them, the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately declared ‘HaShem, G-d of Hosts, on that day has called for crying, lamenting, pulling out one’s hair, and for putting on sack-cloth [Is. 22:12].’ If it were not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say. [Yet], they would weep continuously from one gate to another as a man who’s dead is laid before him. The Holy One, Blessed is He, lamented and said, ‘Woe to him, to the king who succeeded in his youthfulness, but was unable to succeed in his old age.’”[4]

In this particular text from Eichah Rabbah, HaShem declares a day to cry and lament (ויקרא ה’ אלהים צבאות ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד ), and is described as weeping along with Rachel (בוכה, ומבכה הקב”ה עמה). In another closely related text [5], “Rachel” is meant to be understood as representing both Rachel and HaShem (אל תיקרי רחל … אלא רוח-אל).

These “Rachel Weeping” passages in Eichah Rabbah (and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah) exemplify an idea similar to the concept of the Shechinah in exile represented in the Tanya. In the Eichah Rabbah passages it is not just Rachel weeping over her children, but HaShem as well. As such, these texts, along with the Tanya’s reference to the Shechinah in exile demonstrates a perception of the Divine that is personal, compassionate over the Jewish people, and actively involved our daily lives.

 


 

[1] The Tanya is one of the primary texts of Chassidut – Chassidic life and thought, and could even be said to be an introduction to “Chassidic Psychology.” It was written by the founder of Chabad Chasiddism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe) and was first published in 1796.

[2] Tanya, Chapter 17.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Groux, 1983).

[4] Petichta 24, Eichah Rabbah HaMevuar (Jerusalem: Machon Hamidrash Hamevo’ar, 2004) 78. (Translation mine)

[5] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Ch. 28, Siman 2. (Davka)

 

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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6 Responses to The Shechinah in Exile

  1. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "idea that G-d suffers along with Israel and is exiled alongside the Jewish people. That G-d chooses to be exiled along with His people."Which is, of course, the total opposite of how Christianity historically has viewed the Jewish condition – as void of G-d, void of the Presence of His Spirit, void of His Messiah, given over to satan.Great write up, Josh.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene,Thanks! What I almost also expanded into is how Yeshua embodies this same idea. I might even touch on that tomorrow.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Shalom,Did not the Shechinah (The Presence/Glory of G-d) depart from the Temple before the Babylonian captivity in Ezekiel 10? I have also read that in the 2nd Temple during the Roman occupation, the Sages say that the Ark of the Covenant was not in it (the Temple) nor was the Shechinah present.Can you explain? Is the Shechinah very similar to the Spirit of G-d?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Joshua,I agree. I wanted to better understand what you were saying and i do now lol. Yes i do believe that HaShem's Presence is always with His people. Can you explain the similarity's and the differences between the Shechinah and The Spirit of G-d?Also on a deeper (Sod level), is Yeshua HaMashiach similar to that of The Shechinah, the same? Can you refer me to some good resources on this subject? Thank you very much.

  5. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Anonymous,Basically the Shechinah and the Ruach (the Spirit of G-d) are variations of the same thing. The Shechinah G-d's presence, whereas the Ruach can either be G-d's presence or a emanation of G-d.Yeshua is also an emanation of HaShem, but in a more physical form.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Anonymous,

    1) The Shechinah is G-d's presence.
    2) According to tradition, the Shechinah went into Exile with the Jewish people but returned with the return to Jerusalem (yet, of course at the same time an aspect of HaShem's presence is always present everywhere at all times, as God is also omnipresent).
    3) Yes, there was no Ark in the Second Temple.
    4) There is indeed a tradition recorded in the Talmud that states the presence of HaShem departed the Temple 40 years before its destruction (see b. Yoma 39b and Rosh HaShana 31b).

    The presence of G-d was indeed originally within the Second Temple (first rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon around 538 BCE). It is interesting to consider the tradition that the presence of G-d departed before its final forty years. Especially when you consider that Yeshua's crucifixion and ascension was about the same time (approx. forty years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE). Coincidence or not??? I personally do not think so. The only thing is that the believers continued to worship in the Temple until it was destroyed. So why would they bother if they thought there was no aspect of G-d's presence which remained? As with all things, I think it is nuanced.

    IMHO, there is some truth to the passages recorded in the Talmud about the presence of G-d departing from the Temple 40 years before its destruction. But I do think that G-d also honors His covenant with the His people, and that there was an aspect (albeit, maybe reduced) of HaShem's presence that remained.

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