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When Nothing = Everything

Who doesn’t want to have the Shechinah – Divine Presence in their lives? The question is how do we accomplish this? One of the answers is offered by Rabbi Chanina in Ethics of our Fathers (3:2): “Two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them.” Seems pretty simple. Sit with someone else and speak some words of Torah and we are good to go. Not so fast. A close examination of the precise language tells a different story. Furthermore, the scriptural proof that he cites from Malachai 3:16, “Then the G‑d-fearing conversed with one another, and G‑d listened and heard,” offers some further insight into the prerequisites for welcoming the Shechinah into our midst.

It seems that being G-d fearing an integral part of the equation. “Two who sit” implies that they are sitting at an equal level to each other. “Exchange words of Torah” and “Conversed with one another” further imply a symbiotic relationship where each is a contributor. This tells us that that if one feels superior to the other, the Shechinah does not rest amongst them. How do we ensure that we remain cognizant of this at all times when learning Torah?

For this we turn to the previous clause in the same passage of Ethics of our Fathers. “Rabbi Chanina, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

While a literal application of this teaching is certainly a good idea, the Rebbe takes a deeper dive into the meaning of these words of wisdom. The word for government in this passage is Malchut (sovereignty). This alludes to the Sovereignty of the A-lmighty. Fear of its authority is the sense of awe that one must have for G-d. Swallowing the life of the neighbor equates to condescendingly not allowing another person to have an individual identity, because of their unworthiness in your eyes.  

When we are aware of the Sovereignty of Hashem, this arouses our awe and reverence for Him, thereby evoking a strong sense of humility before Hashem’s greatness. That humility prevents us from feeling superior to another. Because this is something that is not easy to maintain, we are instructed to pray for this, helping us to internalize the message in an ongoing manner.

Once we operate in this mindset, then the next passage is a perfect segue, two people sit together and exchange words of Torah, who view themselves as equals due to their mutual humility before G-d, merit to have the Shechinah dwell amongst them. It matters little that their knowledge or level of learning may not be the same. They both live with the sense of reverence of Hashem, which causes them to operate in a humility mindset. This is the key to success in bringing the Shechinah in our midst.

In the end, the sense of being nothing brings a person everything.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Lessons Learned on the Road - 2023 Edition

Longtime readers of this column recall that over the years I have shared adventures of our family’s road trips and the lessons we learned from them. For some examples, see, and,

For those of you wondering, our annual trek to New York for Pesach went smoothly without incident, thank G-d. However even when things go well, being in a confined space with your family for 30 hours, affords one the ability to learn a thing or two about life. 

On our way up to New York before the holiday, we were driving for a few hours when our one-year-old son Shneur began to wail. Malkie made him a bottle and passed it back to be given to him. For a moment or two he was quiet, but then he started fussing again. Clearly there was something dissatisfying about the bottle. So she asked that the bottle be passed back up to the front seat so she can examine it and see what was wrong. As soon as it was taken from him, his cries reached ear-splitting decibels. Malkie identified the issue. There is a mechanism in the bottle that prevents dripping which was not installed properly, and it was preventing the liquid from coming through to his mouth. She fixed it and passed it back, and all was well and quiet. 

All of this was taking place as I am driving. Being slightly detached from the goings on gave me the ability to consider what happened and make an observation. If only Shneur had the sense to realize that his mother took the bottle away so as to make it better for him, instead of crying he would have been enthusiastically grateful. The problem is that at the age of one, he lacks that discernment. I shared my thoughts with Malkie, and almost simultaneously, we looked at each other and both said, “aren’t we all like that at times.” We both knew that this would be the substance of an upcoming “weekly email.” 

We are all like Shneur in the story at times in our lives. Hashem bestows blessings upon us. Sometimes it seems like the blessings are out of reach and inaccessible. We “cry” and are unhappy about the state of our lives. Then when the blessings are reinstated and become accessible again, we look back and realize that Hashem gave us something far superior than what we thought we had previously. Had we possessed the patience, maturity, and foresight, rather than crying and kvetching, we would have been enthusiastically grateful for the wonderful gift that Hashem was improving for us. 

The expression used in the Talmud is “Gam Zu L’Tovah - This too is for the best.” The Rebbe explains that the message is that the apparent obstacle not only leads to a good outcome, but is itself making things even better in a way that we cannot yet perceive. With the correct attitude we have the ability to not only accept, but embrace what Hashem is doing as being directly for our benefit. 

May all of Hashem’s blessings to each of us be in an open and revealed manner that require neither a magnifying glass nor a degree in philosophy to recognize.

Shabbat Shalom
Mendel Rivkin

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