Divrei Torah

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April 20, 2017 - Parashat Shemini

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah begins with Moses’s instructions to Aaron, his sons, and the elders of Israel:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the LORD…” (Leviticus 9:1-2)

Much of the parashah consists of instructions regarding the sacrifices and other regulations regarding dietary restrictions. Near the beginning of the parashah Moses relayed the following instructions to the Children of Israel. “Moses said: “This is what the LORD has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the LORD may appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:6)

The midrash Yalkut Shimoni (13-14th century) brings the following interpretation (par. 521):

Moses said to Israel: Remove that [evil] urge from your hearts in order that you all be of one feeling of awe and agreement in order to worship God. Just as [God] is unique in the world so too should your worship be unique before him, as it says “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:16) Why? “For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme” (ibid., 10:17) When you do this “that the Presence of the LORD may appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:6)

Rabbi Moses Schreiber, the Hatam Sofer (Hungary, 18-19th c.), understood this midrash to be explaining that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, would only dwell among the Children of Israel when they worshiped God with a truly pure heart and for the sake of heaven. Only when their worship was for the sake of heaven would “the Presence of the LORD…appear to you.”

The Hatam Sofer then proceeds to bring the power and meaning behind the dwelling of the Shekhinah to a post-Tabernacle and post-Temple world. He writes the following:

And one should continue and say that holiness does not dwell in a synagogue even if it was built for the sake of being a synagogue until people pray in it for the first time. It is only then that holiness dwells in it…That is why it was first required that Moses would pray in the Tabernacle before the Shekhinah was able to dwell in it. When they exited the Tabernacle Moses prayed “May it be Your will that the Shekhinah dwell through your handiwork.”

According to the Hatam Sofer, the Shekhinah can only dwell among the Children of Israel after we have properly dedicated a space for her to dwell. Whether it is through prayer or our handiwork, it is up to us to help facilitate her presence and to welcome holiness into this world.

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Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinics Curriculum coordinator at AJR.