When, as a boy, I became involved with Judaism, I began to observe Shabbos – the Sabbath. It was around this period that I discovered a Jewish family in my neighborhood of Rockaway Beach, New York, that also observed Shabbos. I met the father and his teenage son in the local synagogue, and they invited me to join them each Shabbos to study the section of the Mishnah known as "Pirkei Avos." This section of the Mishnah contains a collection of ethical and spiritual teachings which are rooted in the Revelation at Sinai, and which discuss personality development, spiritual growth, and our ethical responsibilities. In the Mishnah, there are five chapters of Pirkei Avos, but in a later period, a sixth chapter was added. This chapter discusses our relationship with Torah and the life-giving benefits of Torah. There is a custom to study a chapter of Pirkei Avos on each of the six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuos, the Festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The sixth chapter about the Torah is read on the sixth Sabbath – the Sabbath before Shavuos.
Thanks to the initial inspiration of my neighbors, I continued my studies of Pirkei Avos over the years, and I discovered that each teaching has various levels of meaning. I was especially intrigued by the wording of the concluding teaching of the sixth chapter:
“All that the Holy One, Blessed is He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory, as it is said: ‘All that is called by My Name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it’ (Isaiah 43:7).”
This teaching expresses the awesome idea that everyone and everything in creation reflects the Divine glory. (Commentaries of Midrash Shmuel, Tiferes Yisrael, and Rabbi Hirsch to Pirkei Avos)
I was puzzled, however, by the phrase, “He created solely for His glory.” Does the Infinite and Compassionate One need “glory”? The Creator is not a human being with “ego” needs, so what does it mean when it states that the world was created for His glory?
I found one possible answer when I began to study Torah teachings about the Shechinah, for I discovered that in biblical literature, the Shechinah is known as “kavod Hashem” - the glory of the Compassionate One. For example, the term “glory of Hashem” appears in the story of the Sanctuary which was built by Moses and the Children of Israel in the desert. The Sanctuary was called the “Mishkan” - a term which literally means “dwelling place” - for the Mishkan was to serve as the dwelling place of the Shechinah. When the Shechinah descended to the Mishkan, the Torah states:
“The cloud covered the Tent of the Meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.” (Exodus 40:34) – “The cloud covered and the Shechinah dwelled therein.” (Commentary of the Sforno)
The ancient Aramaic translation and midrashic commentary known as Targum Yonasan translates "the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan" as "the glory of the Shechinah filled the Mishkan."
According to Jewish tradition, the Mishkan represents this world, as this world was created to be a Sanctuary for the Shechinah. As the Midrash teaches, “The Mishkan corresponds to the world” (Numbers Rabbah 12:13.) The glory of the Compassionate One filling the Mishkan therefore represents the beginning of a process that is to eventually lead to the glory of the Compassionate One filling the entire world - a return to the spiritual state of the Garden of Eden, when the Shechinah was fully revealed. As King David proclaimed: "Let His glory fill all the earth, Amen and Amen!" (Psalm 72:19)
We can now understand a deeper meaning of the statement: "All that the Holy One, Blessed is He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory." Everything was created to serve as a sanctuary for His Shechinah.
Why, however, is this teaching about the Shechinah the concluding teaching of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avos, the chapter which discusses the Torah? What is the relationship of the Shechinah to the Torah that we received at Mount Sinai?
The beginning of an answer can be found in the following statement which describes how the Shechinah came down when we stood at Mount Sinai:
“The glory of the Compassionate One rested upon Mount Sinai” (Exodus 24:16) – “The glory of the Shechinah of the Compassionate One rested upon Mount Sinai.” (Targum Yonasan)
Rabbenu Bachya explains that the “glory of the Compassionate One” is the Torah’s term for the Shechinah (commentary to verse 17).
I would like to suggest that the dwelling of the Shechinah on Mount Sinai when we received the Torah was to demonstrate to us that the path of the Torah will lead to the full revelation of the Shechinah on earth. The entire earth will then become a “Mishkan” – a Sanctuary for the Shechinah. This is also a way to understand the concluding teaching of Pirkei Avos that we study before Shavuos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (1:14) states: "In the present world, the Shechinah is revealed upon individuals; however, in the future that is to come, 'the glory of the Compassionate One will be revealed, and all humankind will see it together' (Isaiah 40:5)."
2. The title “Pirkei Avos” is often loosely translated as “Ethics of the Fathers”; however, another loose translation is “Root Principles.” Although the word “avos” can mean “fathers” or “ancestors,” it can also mean “roots”; thus, the Tiferes Yisrael, in his opening commentary on this section of the Mishnah, translates “Pireki Avos” as “Root Principles.”