“They took them in under the wings of the Shechinah; Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women.” Commentary of Rashi on Genesis 12:5)
The Hebrew term "Shechinah" refers to the Divine Presence. It is derived from the Hebrew word "shochen" - to dwell, for as we shall discuss in this series, the Shechinah seeks to dwell with us on this physical earth.
We shall also discuss how the Shechinah represents those attributes of the Compassionate One that are "feminine"; thus, when we speak of the “motherly” closeness of the Compassionate One Who seeks to nurture and protect us, we are speaking of the Shechinah. One of the metaphors which our tradition uses to describe this closeness is that of a mother bird who takes her young under her wings. When we come close to the Compassionate One, we have come “under the wings of the Shechinah.”
As we discussed in the previous letter, the Torah is a path of “tzedek” – the higher and loving Divine justice that entitles each creature within creation to receive the nurturing and protection that it needs. Jewish tradition describes a convert who accepts the Torah and its path of tzedek as having come under the wings of the Shechinah – the Divine Presence. For example, the Talmud tells the story of three converts who accepted the Torah with the help of the great sage Hillel, who patiently answered their questions. When they later met, they said, “The humility of Hillel brought us under the Wings of the Shechinah” (Shabbos 31a).
Why do we describe the person who accepts the Torah and its path of tzedek as having come under the wings of the Shechinah? The beginning of an answer can be found in a teaching of the Ramban (Nachmanides), where he cites an ancient mystical tradition that the Shechinah is called “tzedek" (Commentary to Genesis 14:18). This seems to indicate that the nurturing and protective deeds of tzedek are an expression of the nurturing and protective Shechinah; thus, when tzedek is present, the Shechinah is present! A person who decides to follow the Divine path of tzedek has therefore entered “under the wings of the Shechinah.”
Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, explains why a convert is called a “ger tzedek” – a convert for tzedek. Like the Ramban, he cites the tradition 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 under the wings of the Shechinah – a ger tzedek.” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 16:20).
There is a Divine promise that all of our people will return to the Torah path of tzedek, and we will then serve as a social model for the nations, as the Compassionate One proclaimed, “Nations will perceive your tzedek” (Isaiah 62:2). In this age, the Shechinah – Who is called “tzedek” – will dwell with us in Zion, as it is written
"Sing and be glad, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke the Compassionate One." (Zechariah 2:14)
"I will dwell in your midst" - "I will cause My Shechinah to dwell in your midst" (Targum Yonasan)
In the final stage of human history, when all human beings will dedicate their lives to tzedek, the Shechinah will dwell among all humankind. This idea is expressed in the following teaching from Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (1:14), which refers to the Shechinah as "the glory of the Compassionate One":
"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)."
Yes, in the future that is to come, the Shechinah will be revealed upon all humankind, and we will all dwell under the wings of the Shechinah.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Another metaphor for the Shechinah is the “face” of the Compassionate One. For example, the Compassionate One proclaimed that when the People of Israel abandon the Torah, “I will hide my face from them” (Deuteronomy 32:20). According to Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, the “face” is referring to the Shechinah; thus, the Compassionate One is saying, “I will withdraw my Shechinah from them.”
Another example can be found in the following verse: “Through tzedek, I shall behold Your face” (Psalms 17:15). In its commentary on this verse, the Talmud explains that the “face” is the Shechinah, and that we merit to behold the Shechinah through deeds of tzedek. The Talmud adds that even one act of tzedek - such as giving a small coin to a poor person – can enable a person to behold the Shechinah. (Baba Basra 10a).
2. Zion is to be the abode of tzedek, as it is written:
"Thus said the Compassionate One, God of the hosts of creation, God of Israel: People will again say this thing in the land of Judah and in its cities when I return their captivity, 'May the Compassionate One bless you, abode of tzedek, mountain of holiness!' " (Jeremiah 31:22)
And Zion is to be the abode of the Shechinah, as the Compassionate One proclaimed: “I will return to Zion, and I will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem" (Zechariah 8:3) - I will return to Zion, and I will cause my Shechinah to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. (Targum Yonasan)
3. Regarding Jerusalem, it is written, “Tzedek dwells in her” (Isaiah 1:21). The Ramban explains that the term “tzedek” in this verse alludes to the Shechinah (commentary on Deuteronomy 15:20). The Ramban mentions that a source for the tradition that the Shechinah is called “tzedek” is found in an ancient mystical work known as "Sefer Habahir" – also known as “The Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah.”
5. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the Hebrew word “tzedek” is phonetically related to the Aramaic word “shedech” - to soothe, satisfy, and sustain (Commentary to Genesis 15:6). Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, and this Aramaic word therefore suggests that “tzedek” - a term for justice – also connotes caring and nurturing. Tzedek is the caring and nurturing that others are justly entitled to receive according to the Divine plan.