The Shechinah – the Divine Presence – seeks to dwell with us on this earth. In fact, the term “Shechinah” is related to the Hebrew term “shochen” – dwell. Our tradition finds a reference to the Shechinah in the following prophetic blessing that Noah gave to his son, Shem – the ancestor of the People of Israel: “May He (God) dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). The commentator, Rashi, explains this blessing in the following manner: “May He rest His Shechinah upon Israel.”
The hidden wisdom of Torah – known as Kabbalah – reveals that the Shechinah represents those attributes of Hashem that we understand as “feminine” – the attributes that express the loving Divine immanence. For example, the Zohar, a classical work on the hidden wisdom of Torah, teaches:
It is written, “Draw me, we will run after You” (Song of Songs 1:4), and it is written, “I will place My Sanctuary among You” (Leviticus 26:11). Come and see: The Holy One, Blessed be He, placed His Shechinah among Israel so that She will hover over them like a mother over her children, and to protect them from all sides. (Zohar, Song of Songs, 217- cited in Aspacleria, the noted Hebrew encyclopedia of Torah thought)
In this letter, I shall begin to discuss why our tradition refers to the process of conversion as, coming under the wings of the Shechinah.
According to our tradition, Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother, were spiritual teachers who brought “converts” to the service of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. They taught to their disciples certain basic beliefs and precepts which are actually part of the Torah. Our tradition finds a reference to their spiritual outreach in a verse which describes the journey of Abraham and Sarah to the Promised Land. The verse mentions that Abraham and Sarah were accompanied by “the souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). The phrase, “the souls they made,” alludes to the spiritual rebirth of their disciples through their conversion; thus, the commentator, Rashi, cites the following explanation of our sages:
“They are said to have made the souls, for they brought them under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women.” (Genesis Rabbah 84:4)
In the above teaching, the
process of conversion is
described as coming “under the
wings of the Shechinah.” Another
example of this phrase can be
found in a story from the Talmud
about three converts who
accepted the Torah path with the
help of the great sage Hillel,
who was very patient with them,
even though their initial
questions were impudent. When
they later met, they said: “The
humility of Hillel brought us
under the wings of the Shechinah.”
Why is the conversion process referred to as coming “under the wings of the Shechinah”? I would like to suggest the following answer:
According to our tradition, the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to experience the Shechinah in “this” world – in our life on earth. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates on this idea in his commentary on Genesis 9:27 – the verse which contains Noah’s prophetic blessing regarding the resting of the Shechinah upon the People of Israel, the descendants of Shem:
“Judaism teaches what we must do so that God will draw near to us in ‘this’ world. Judaism teaches that the essential dwelling of the Shechinah is in the lower world of this earth (Genesis Rabbah 19:7). God seeks, first of all, to dwell on earth together with the human being; He says, ‘Let them make of their lives on earth a sanctuary to Me, then I will dwell in their midst’ (Exodus 25:8). To perfect the world through the reign of the Almighty – not only in the heavens above, but also on the earth below – is the mission of Israel and the purpose of its Torah.”
Since the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to experience the Shechinah on earth, a convert who accepts the responsibility to fulfill these mitzvos is referred to as someone who is coming “under the wings of the Shechinah.” The spiritual journey of the convert is to remind us of the journey of all Israel, for we are all to come under the wings of the Shechinah through fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah in the Land of Zion. An early allusion to this idea is found in a series of Divine promises concerning the blessings that we will experience in the Land when we study and fulfill the Torah. In the concluding blessing, Hashem says:
“I will walk among you, and I will be your God, and you will be My people.” (Leviticus 26:12).
The ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onkelos interprets the Hebrew words, “I will walk among you,” in the following manner: “I will rest My Shechinah among you.”
And regarding the messianic age, Hashem proclaimed:
“Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke Hashem.” (Zechariah 2:14)
“I will dwell in your midst” – I will rest My Shechinah in your midst. (Translation of Targum Yonasan)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching:
As we discussed in the previous letter, “The Ger Tzedek,” the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to fulfill the Divine goal of tzedek where everyone and everything on earth receive their due. Ramban (Nachmanides), a leading sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, cites a kabbalistic teaching that the Shechinah is called tzedek (commentary on Genesis 14:18, and Deuteronomy 16:20).
Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, another leading sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, cites the kabbalistic teaching that the Shechinah is called tzedek, and he adds:
“It is for this reason that we find that the sages of truth call a human being who converts – who comes to take shelter under the wings of the Shechinah – a ger tzedek.” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 16:20).
Most of the previous letters in this series appear in the archive on our website.