When Nothing = Everything

Friday, 28 April, 2023 - 3:11 pm

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

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