Rav Yaakov Hillel On Parshas Bamidbar: Bringing the Shechinah Closer



rav-yaakov-hillelBy Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rosh Yeshiva Ahavat Shalom
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month in the second year after their exodus from Egypt, saying, count the entire community of the Children of Israel by their families, according to their fathers’ households, by the number of the names of every male according to their head count” (Bamidbar 1:1-2).

Rashi explains the significance of this census.

“Because of His love for them He counted them at all times. When they left Egypt He counted them, and when they died at the [Golden] Calf He counted them, to know how many were left. When He came to rest His Presence on them He counted them. On the first of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first on Iyar He counted them.”

Why did Hashem count the Jewish people time and time again? Why were they counted specifically in preparation for having the Divine Presence (Shechinah) rest in their midst?

Greater Presence
In Pirke Avot we find a connection between the number of Jews gathered together and the presence of the Shechinah (3:6).

“Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa of Kfar Hananyah says, ten who sit and engage in Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them, as it says, ‘G-d stands in the Divine congregation’ (Tehillim 82:1).How do we know that this is so even of five? As it says, ‘And His group is founded on earth’ (Amos 9:6). And how do we know that this is so even of three? As it says, ‘He will judge in the midst of judges’ (Tehillim 82:1). How do we know that this is so even of two? As it says, ‘Then those who fear G-d spoke to one another, and G-d listened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16). How do we know that this is so even of one? As it says, ‘In every place where My Name is mentioned I will come to you and bless you'” (Shmot 20:21).
We learn from this mishnah that the Shechinah rests upon those who engage in Torah study, and that the more people are learning together, the greater the presence of the Shechinah in their midst. This is surprising; don’t we know that G-d is everywhere? “The whole world is filled with His glory” (Yeshayahu 6:3), and “And His Presence is everywhere” (Tikune Zohar 122b). And yet, the mishnah says that the Shechinah is found specifically with those who are learning, and that an increase in the number of those learning brings about a greater level of revelation of the Shechinah.

Levels of Sanctity
How can there be gradations or levels of the Divine Presence?

We find the concept of different levels of sanctity in the laws of ritual purity and impurity. Our Sages tell us that there are ten levels of sanctity. Eretz Yisrael is on a higher level than all other lands. Cities in Eretz Yisrael surrounded by a wall are on a higher level of sanctity than the rest of the Land; the area inside the wall surrounding Jerusalem is on a higher level still; and the Temple Mount is even more sanctified. The mishnah goes on to list increasingly higher levels of sanctity, concluding with the Holy of Holies at the highest level of all (Mishnayot Kelim 1:6-8). Clearly, these levels of sanctity are related to the level at which the Shechinah resides in each place.

Even in our times, when we no longer have the Bet Hamikdash and are in exile among the nations, the concept of different levels of sanctity still exists. For example, a bet midrash where Torah is studied has greater sanctity than a synagogue used exclusively for prayer (see Megillah 26b, 27a).

Sanctified Locations
Let us try to understand more about this complex topic.

It is Hashem’s Will to rest His Shechinah in the lower world and in the midst of the Jewish people. We find this principle frequently in the Torah. For example:

“And I will place My Sanctuary among you” (Vayikra 26:11).
· “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shmot 25:8).
· “For Hashem chose Zion, He desired it as His dwelling place” (Tehillim 132:13).
· “The foundation of Your dwelling place You have made, Hashem” (Shmot 15:17).

As we learn from the mishnah in Kelim, the greater the spiritual standing of a location, the greater the Divine revelation in that location will be, with thousands of possible levels. There is no doubt that “the whole world is filled with His glory” (Yeshayahu 6:3), but the revelation in the world as a whole is at a low, generalized level. The Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth, is the site of the greatest degree of revelation. The level decreases progressively from the Bet HaMikdash to Jerusalem to Eretz Yisrael to the rest of the world.

The more elevated form of Divine revelation, related to the higher spiritual worlds, is called Kudsha Brich Hu. The lowest level, related to our physical world, is called “Shechinah,” from the root of the word shochen, to dwell. The Shechinah is the revelation of G-d which dwells among us on earth,[ as we find in the verse, “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell (shachanti) in their midst” (Shmot 25:8). In the L’shem Yihud prayer recited before fulfilling a mitzvah, we say “For the unification of Kudsha Brich Hu and the Shechinah.” These are not two separate entities, G-d forbid; “Hashem is One and His Name is One” (Zechariah 14:9), in the most simple sense of the words. The use of more than one term indicates that the innumerable levels at which Hashem reveals Himself are all truly One. When we say L’Shem Yihud, we declare our complete belief that all levels of Hashem’s revelation are One.

Bringing the Shechinah Closer
Just as the level of revelation varies in keeping with the sanctity of the location, it also varies in keeping with the number of Jews present. Our Sages tell us, “Everywhere where there are ten people, the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a). The presence of the Shechinah can be intensified and raised to a higher level, depending on how many people have gathered together to pray or do mitzvot. The greater the number, the greater the revelation of the Shechinah grows, because “a small number of people who fulfill the Torah is not the same as a large number of peoplewho fulfill the Torah” (Rashi on Vayikra 26:8). In addition, in keeping with man’s deeds – good or bad – the revelation of the Shechinah becomes more or less intense, or even departs altogether, G-d forbid.

If man’s deeds are a major factor in the degree of Divine revelation, what can we do to bring the Shechinah closer? The most powerful means we have is learning Torah, the expression of Hashem’s Will.

Great tzaddikim can achieve a very elevated level of Divine revelation, as we learn from Hashem’s words to the prophet Yeshayahu: “For so said the lofty and mighty One, Who dwells forever and His Name is holy: I dwell elevated and sanctified, but I am with the oppressed and low of spirit, to give life to the spirit of the lowly and give life to the heart of the oppressed” (Yeshayahu 57:15; see Rashi). This verse alludes to the tzaddikim, who are truly humble and worthy of having the Divine Presence rest upon them. As Hashem Himself says, “I am with [them].”

The Al-mighty’s Chariot

A Jew’s task is to perfect each of his two hundred forty-eight limbs and three hundred sixty-five sinews through the two hundred forty-eight positive commandments and three hundred sixty-five negative commandments. He must also correct and refine his character traits, eliminating bad traits and working to acquire good traits. One who does so merits increased revelation of the Shechinah. A tzaddik on a very high spiritual level can go so far as to become “Hashem’s Chariot” (Maarechet HaElokut, Chapter 11, citing the Sages). This esoteric concept means that righteous individuals so thoroughly purify and sanctify their bodies and souls that they reach the lofty level where the Divine Presence dwells within them, so to speak.

Our Forefathers achieved an even higher level: “The Fathers are themselves Hashem’s Chariot” (Bereshit Rabbah 47:8). They were so closely bound to the Al-mighty that His Presence was with them constantly; their very being was Hashem’s Chariot, with the Rider Himself in it, so to speak. As Rabbi Yitzhak D’min Acco explains, their bond was so strong that they became the living embodiment of Hashem’s Divine Attributes. In this way they fulfilled Hashem’s Will, providing Him with a dwelling place in the lower world.

Pillar of Fire
With this in mind, we can understand Hashem’s commandment to count the Jewish people in our parashah. As Rashi explains, the purpose of this counting was for Hashem to rest His Shechinah upon them after the erection of the Mishkan. Numbers were a crucial factor here, for the greater the number of people uniting to fulfill His Will, the greater the revelation would be (see Torat Moshe by the Hatam Sofer, Parashat Ki Tisa).

The yarche kallah held twice a year in the Babylonian town of Mata Mehasia were a magnificent illustration of this principle. Every Adar and Elul, tens of thousands of sages, scholars, and students would come together to learn Torah. The sanctity and spirituality at these times were so powerful that a pillar of fire would descend from Heaven to rest upon the assembly. In fact, our Sages tell us that the non-Jewish inhabitants of the town were exceedingly crude: they witnessed this amazing sight twice yearly right at their own doorstep, so to speak, and yet they remained complacent and apathetic, and were never moved to convert (Berachot 17b, Tosfot citing Sefer HaIttim).

The Importance of the Individual
Because Hashem freed our people from Egyptian bondage in order to rest His Presence upon them, He commanded Moshe to count them after the Exodus. After the nation sinned with the Golden Calf and the Shechinah left them, Moshe begged Hashem to once again rest His Presence on the people (Shmot 33). Hashem agreed, and since many of the people had died, Hashem again commanded Moshe to count them, in order to rest His Presence on them anew.
Why was the counting necessary? Because Klal Yisrael is a whole composed of individuals, each important at his own level. The Shechinah can rest on an individual in keeping with his level, but when individuals join together, unified as one, they bring the Shechinah to rest on the nation as a whole. This is why the nation was counted both as a people and as individuals, as we see in our parashah. Taken together, the head count, count by families and tribes, and count of the nation’s princes produced one united whole. We find this concept in the verse, “He will be a King in Yeshurun when the heads of the nations gather, the tribes of Israel united” (Devarim 33:5). The members of the Tribes of Israel together with their leaders comprise a nation – Yeshurun, the nation of Israel.

Every Tribe Unique
Every Tribe in Israel merits its own unique revelation of the Shechinah as well. The Arizal writes that in Heaven there are twelve gates, one for the prayers of each Tribe. The prayers of each Tribe ascend through the window which is its specific gateway (see Yehezkel 48:30-35). He explains that in keeping with the different customs of various communities, there are many differences in the wording of the texts of the prayers, among them Nusah Sefard and Nusah Ashkenaz. It is appropriate for every individual to maintain his family’s customs and pray as his ancestors did, to ensure that his prayers ascend to Heaven (Shaar HaKavanot, drush Nusach HaTefillah p. 50 col. d).

Just as every Tribe has its own nusah in prayer and its own gate in Heaven through which its prayers ascend to the Heavenly Throne, it follows that the Shechinah rests on each Tribe in its own special way. We learn this from the way the Tribes traveled around the Holy Ark in the desert, positioned around its four sides – north, south, east, and west. These positions were determined by each Tribe’s level and task, in keeping with the direction from which the particular Tribe received its Divine influx. We also find this concept in the four legs of the Heavenly Chariot, alluding to four different aspects of the Presence of the Shechinah (see Nefesh HaHayyim, Shaar Gimel, Chapter 10).

Man and the Mishkan

The Nefesh HaHayyim discusses the concept of the Shechinah resting on the Jewish nation (Shaar Alef, Chapter Four). He cites the verses, “And they will make for Me as Sanctuary and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all its vessels, so shall you do” (Shmot 25:8-9). Our Sages comment, “‘So shall you do’ – in all future generations” (Sanhedrin 16b).

I feel that this teaches us that the purpose of the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels was not merely for the sake of the physical structure; its true purpose was to serve as a model for man. We too should be like a Mishkan. The Mishkan and its contents were holy, worthy of serving as receptacles for the Divine Presence, as we learn from the wording of the verses cited by the Nefesh HaHayyim: “And they will make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. Like everything I show you – the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all its vessels – so shall you do.” Hashem showed our people the shape and form these sanctified entities were to take, to show us what we should make of ourselves.

We find this idea concerning the Bet HaMikdash as well. When its construction was completed, Hashem said to Shlomo, “This House which you are building, if you follow My decrees, fulfill My statutes, and observe all My commandments, to follow them…. I shall dwell among the Children of Israel” (I Melachim 6:12-13). Hashem’s Presence in the Bet HaMikdash was dependent on one fundamental factor. If the people would “follow My decrees, fulfill My statutes, and observe all My commandments to follow them,” then, and only then, Hashem told Shlomo, “I shall dwell among the Children of Israel.”

When the people’s internal Sanctuary was ruined, the existence of the physical, external structure could no longer help them, and it was destroyed, may G-d spare us. We find this idea in Hashem’s words to the Prophet Yechezkel concerning the Bet HaMikdash. “Tell the House of Israel about the Temple and they will be ashamed of their sins…. and if they become ashamed of all they have done, [make known to them] the form of the Temple and its design, its exits and its entrances and all its forms, all its laws, all its designs and all its teachings, and write it down before their eyes so that they may safeguard its entire form and all its rules and fulfill them” (Yehezkel 43:10-11). Knowledge of the laws concerning the structure of the Temple and its vessels has a very distinct purpose: it teaches us to prepare ourselves to serve as a dwelling place for the Shechinah, by learning Torah, fulfilling the mitzvot, and refraining from sin. Sinning would be akin to destroying the Temple, causing the Shechinah to depart, G-d forbid.

Immediately following the commandment to count the people (Bamidbar 1:1-3), the Torah lists the names of the princes of the various Tribes (5-15). Moshe was instructed to count the nation as a whole composed of parts. Each individual Jew, at his own particular level of Torah and mitzvot, is a crucial part of the nation. In keeping with that level, he is instrumental in bringing the Shechinah to rest upon Klal Yisrael. The greater our dedication to Torah and mitzvot, the closer we can bring the Shechinah not only to ourselves, but to our entire people.

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