By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem doted on his grandson and believed him to be a genius. Rabbi Moshe Chaim wrote a wonderful Torah commentary called ‘Degel Machaneh Efrayim.’ When we study this text, we are also studying the teachings of my hero, and the rabbi whom I most admire and love, the Baal Shem Tov.
As a matter of fact, my wife Peggy continually reminds me that, if I had not emigrated to the United States, I would have become a Chasidic rabbi. Nonetheless, even though I left Orthodoxy when I left Canada, I am enormously moved and inspired by Chasidic thought and practice. I am particularly inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim, or the Degel, as well as the Baal Shem Tov. In fact, I will be teaching a class on Chasidic Meditations and Teaching, starting on February 3.
In this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, Moses and the Jewish people are given the 10 Commandments. Rabbi Moshe Chaim, comments on the commandment, “Lo ta’aseh lecha pesel vechol temunah.You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above.”
Commenting on this commandment, the Degel writes, “The Ohr Hachayyim suggests that the word ‘lecha’ means ‘of oneself.’ We can understand then that the words ‘or any likeness’ (vechol temunah) also has this meaning. The mystical meaning of this emerges from the teaching of the Zohar that the righteous of this generation, the honored of this generation, the wise of this generation, are the very face of the Shechinah; She is hidden and they are visible.
“Indeed, in many places in the Zohar, we read that the Shechinah in all actuality dwells in them and their faces are the very face of the Shechinah. This is supported by the Targum on Numbers 23:21: ‘Their kings acclaim in their midst’- ‘The Shechinah of their king is in them’ – exactly in them, which means really in them. Those who are not of that status and who have not attained that level of spiritual development, are only the representation, likeness and image of G-d, but not really G-d. G-d is present in them, only to the degree that they are created in the image and likeness of G-d, for this never changes….
“Now, every person is the likeness and face of the King. Yet, it is only the appearance of the King, but not the image of the King himself and the being of the King does not dwell in them. But, those who have attained spirituality: the righteous, those who merit, the wise, they are the face of the Shechinah Herself. And G-d dwells in them….Make yourself the very face of the Shechinah Herself that the Shechinah might dwell in you, to attain the very quality of the king.”
One of our bar mitzvah students recently asked me, “Rabbi, you tell us that the Shechinah dwells in us, in all of us. Last night at dinner, my father said that Bernie Madoff shamed the Jewish people. If She really dwells in us, how could Mr. Madoff be so bad?”
I then turned off the lights in the room. I asked the young boy if the electricity was still functioning in the room. He said, “Yes.” I proceeded to ask him, “Why is the room dark? Why don’t we see light?”
“Because you turned off the switch.”
When I turned the switch on, the light appeared again. He understood that, in order for the light to shine, we need to turn on the switch that activates the electricity. We need to embrace and practice the mitzvot, if we want to see the face of the Shechinah dwelling within us. Mr. Madoff failed to do so.
According to the Degel, “On a more mystical level, we can understand the phrase, ‘You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image to mean ‘do not disqualify yourself.’ When we sin through the transgression of idolatry, the image of G-d is disqualified and removed from us; in Psalm 39:7, Scripture says ‘Human beings move about in the Divine image. But our face will not be recognized above. We will enter the realm of those upon whom the children of the living G-d may not gaze…..’
The Ohr Hachayyim introduces us to the concept of the image of G-d being something that might be removed from us, as a consequence of idolatry. When we violate this law, we are disqualified-negating our true nature. Not only will other people be prohibited to gaze upon us, but we will also not be recognized by heaven.
The Degel not only embraces this teaching, but he further argues that our natural state is to bear the Divine image as if we were the face of the Shechinah, as if G-d dwells in us. The Degel argues that it is our natural state to hold the Shechinah in us. Through our sins, through our abandonment of mitzvot, we negate our natural state.
Of course, we are all created in the image of G-d. This is why we are called the Crown of G-d’s creation. But we need to activate the face of the Shechinah.
We human beings have the potential not only to bear the image of G-d, but to become the face of G-d. Yet, we also have the capacity to disqualify ourselves, to nullify the face.
That is why I think it is crucial for us, in these difficult economic times to share our money with others who need it. Hundreds of thousands of hard working people have been affected by the government shut-down. Every Thursday, I see people at our temple, seeking help from our Food Pantry. We must help. We must look into the face of those who ask us, and we must see the image of G-d. We must give, so that when we look in our mirrors, we will always see the Face of the Shechinah. What a joy, what an honor, what a blessing it is to see the Face of the Shechinah, morning, afternoon and night.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president of Hebrew Seminary, as well as professor of Jewish Mysticism.