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The Revelation of the Shechinah

Dear Friends,
When we stood at Mount Sinai, Moshe, Aaron, and other great teachers ascended part of the mountain, and they experienced the following vision:
“They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of a sapphire brick, like the essence of the heaven in purity.” (Exodus 24:10)

Within the first part of the vision was a “sapphire brick” that was placed under the “feet” of God. What is the significance of this sapphire brick? Citing various midrashim, Rashi explains that during the enslavement of the Children of Israel, a form of a sapphire brick was before the Compassionate One as a reminder of the suffering of Israel who were enslaved in the work of producing bricks. And what is the significance of the second part of the vision, “like the essence of heaven in purity”? Rashi explains that this is an expression of the “light and delight” that was before the Compassionate One when they were redeemed.

Rav Aharon Riter, a noted Torah scholar in Bnei Brak, Israel, elaborates on the above interpretation of Rashi. Through this two-part vision, says Rav Riter, they gained a deeper understood of the tremendous love that Hashem has for them. The image of the sapphire brick revealed to them that when they were suffering and enslaved, Hashem, was also “suffering”; moreover, Hashem had been watching over them in order to later redeem them. And the image of “the essence of heaven in purity” revealed to them that upon their redemption, there was “light and delight” before Hashem, the Compassionate One, Who, metaphorically speaking, shares in their happiness. (Sha’arei Aharon)

Rabbi Riter’s explanation is rooted in a midrash which discusses the above verse. According to the midrash, the vision of the sapphire brick is revealing the following idea:
“During the entire period that the People of Israel were enslaved, the Shechinah, metaphorically speaking, was enslaved with them (Midrash Yalkut Ha-Mechiri on Psalm 91)

The midrash then asks a fascinating question: This vision reveals the partnership of the Shechinah in the suffering of the community. Is there a reference in our Scriptures which indicates that the Shechinah is also a partner in the suffering of each individual? The midrash responds by citing the following Divine proclamation: “I am with him in distress” (Psalm 91:15.)It does not say, “I am with them,” but “I am with him” -
referring to each individual.

In this spirit, the Talmud cites the following teaching:

“When a human being suffers, what does the Shechinah say? She says: ‘My head is heavy, My arm is heavy.’ “(Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5

The Divine wisdom may decide that we -as individuals or as a community -are to experience a measure of suffering, and during this period the Shechinah may not openly intervene to save us from this suffering. Instead of experiencing the “revelation” of the Shechinah, we experience the “concealment” of the Shechinah. This concept is expressed in the Divine warning concerning the bitter exile that will face the Children of Israel if they abandon their Covenant with Hashem: “And I will conceal My face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18.) According to the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onlelos, the term “My face” is referring to the Shechinah. From the perspective of the people in exile, the Shechinah will seem “hidden.”

Sforno, one of the classical biblical commentators, states that this Divine warning concerning the concealment of the Shechinah also contains a message of comfort; it is a response to the complaint of the Children of Israel in the previous verse, where they say: “Is it not because my God is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?” (verse 17.) Sforno explains that when the people will experience the suffering of the exile, they will feel that the Shechinah has totally abandoned them; thus, they will not make the effort to return to Hashem through prayer or teshuva -repentance and renewal. Hashem therefore responds that the Shechinah is “hidden,” but is still with them. And the Sforno cites the following teaching of our sages: “Whenever Israel was exiled, the Shechinah was with them” (Megillah 29a).

The Shechinah is “hiding” from us, and it is our task to seek to find Her once again.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Related Teaching:
Targum Yonasan and other midrashim cite the following story concerning the vision of the sapphire brick: When the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, the women helped the men with the hard labor of making bricks. From the stress of the work, one young woman had a miscarriage, and the embryo fell into the mixture of water and clay. A brick was formed from this mixture, and the angel, Gabriel, brought the brick to heaven and placed it under the Divine “footstool.”