Shechinah and the Holiness of Longing

Some Mysticism for the Seventh Week of the Omer

For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 3, 2011

This is the 7th week of the Omer, which is the in-between time, the wilderness that stretches from Egypt to Sinai, from Pesach to Shavuot. Our mystical forebears counted each week of the Omer by reference to one of the seven lower sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tree of Life being sort of the assembly line of Creation with God's slightest thought at the input end and the world that we know at the output. (The Tree of Life is not as linear or sequential as that of course; it is in constant operation, with all the spiritual elements of existence being added in at every moment.)

So this 7th week of the Omer references the sefirah called Malchut. This is the final sefirah, and it means "the kingdom." It is this kingdom: the world that we live in, the reality that we perceive with our eyes and ears. Not just a place or a time, but an entire reality.

But in the same way that Malchut represents a finite, observable universe housed within a great infinity, so Malchut also reflects a certain schism in the nature of the Divine. On the one hand we have the vast, infinite God, as unknowable as His name is unutterable. We refer to this God as Hakadosh Baruch Hu - Holy One Praised be He - or Eyn Sof - the Infinite - or YHWH or sometimes just plain God.

And on the other hand, we have the Shechinah. The divine takeaway.

Our idea of the Shechinah is grounded textually in our biblical story of building the mishkan - the tabernacle - in the wilderness. "Build it," God says, "so that I may dwell among them," meaning among us.

V'shachanti: "I will dwell." And from this idea and this Hebrew root we get shechinah - God's dwelling. Not the place, but the phenomenon. God's hanging out among us - around us and in us. Over the centuries, as our mystical imagination grew, the Shechinah came to be personified as a feminine aspect of God: a divine mother, a Sabbath bride, our advocate before God, a friend.

And the rest is history. Or mythology. Or mysticism. In our 21st Century mysticism, the Shechinah is the part of God that we experience first hand - in the world, in our hearts. When we mutter a "Please God" under our breath, it is the Shechinah we're pleading to. When danger is averted and we instinctively say, "Oh, thank God," it is the Shechinah we're thanking. When we walk through the woods pouring out our sorrows as the disciples of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav were instructed to do, it is the Shechinah's shoulder we're crying on. When our grandmothers would sigh and say Gotenyu it was the Shechinah's comfort they were seeking. And when our hearts leap up and doors fly open to welcome shabbat, it is the Shechinah's face we are looking for.

So this 7th week of the Omer would be the time for us to especially celebrate the Shechinah and notice her presence in all things. I started trying to do that a bit this week. And for me, it's sometimes easy, because, b"H, there are many blessings in my life. I live somewhere beautiful, under trees. This week I heard rain on my roof and saw a fox at my door. There were some magnificent rainclouds bathed in golden sunset. I noticed my family around me, whom I love and who are almost never completely annoying. So amidst all that beauty and blessing it can be easy - too easy really - to think, "Ah, the Shechinah."

Because beauty and love are not our sole experience of the world. They might not even be our dominant experience of the world. We all cycle through times of sadness, grief, loneliness, defeat, struggle. Our golden times are fleeting. Our bodies begin to fail just as we become wise enough to know how best to use them. Our relationships end. Our desire for love or health or achievement remains unrequited, or differently requited. If the Shechinah really embodies our experience, then we must be able to recognize her in the hard stuff. Because there's just so much hard stuff, and if we are created in God's image, God must be there.

Perhaps this is the special appeal of the idea of the Shechinah. The breaking of the godhead in two reflects our own experience of brokenness, of separation, of isolation. Separation seems to be the special characteristic of this realm of malchut. In our mystical creation story, God starts out as everything. All is one, all is same. But then God makes way for Creation to happen. God scootches over in an act called tzimtzum.

And in this holy scootching, multiplicity is invented. There becomes a here and a there; a now and a then; a me and a you, an us and a God. The infinite invents the finite, and suddenly we have individuality and plurality and relationship and change and longing.

Malchut, the world of separation, is also necessarily the world of longing. In it we observe the gravitational pull between bodies. We experience in us and around us the desire to live. The desire to stay alive in order to connect the past with the future. The desire to love. To be loved. To hang on tight to our loved ones. To aspire. To achieve. To learn. To build. To race. To reach, which like the trees of the forest, we do without even thinking about it, down into the earthand up into the light. While the physical universal of this world is change, the spiritual universal of this world is longing.

Now any Buddhist can tell you that longing, craving, clinging - these bring suffering. The Buddhist responds by trying to reduce suffering by letting go of attachments, and reaching beyond desire. Our way, however, is a bit different. The Kabbalist tells us to seek the holy in the suffering by cultivating an awareness that our longing itself is rooted in God. All this longing is the foreseeable consequence of God's little scootch.

Midrash tells us that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Shechinah came into exile with us, and that she longs alongside us. So if God is the source of our longing, the Shechinah is our companion in it. According to the early Chasid, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, even our longing for God is itself an echo, a reflex, of the Shechinah's longing to be reunited with God.

It is said that when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, the Shechinah would enter the Holy of Holies on erev shabbat and the Holy One,

Hakadosh Baruch Hu, would enter as well, and they would be reunited in marital bliss. The Temple is gone, but through our observance of shabbat, we continue to engineer this yichud, this conjugal visit between God and the Shechinah, although I couldn't say for certain who is the prisoner and who the visitor. But while Kabbalists imagine this reunion as a day-long bliss-filled sexual liaison, I can't quite. How could the fact of separation, the pain of separation, not come with them into the bedchamber? I imagine God and the Shechinah, instead, sitting in the Holy of Holies, maybe at a card table dealing out a game of gin. "So," one of them asks the other, "how's this separation thing working for you?" And it turns out they both hate it. But they know that longing is key to the world they birthed and now they are trapped by their Creation. It is too late or maybe just too early to go back to the great undifferentiated Infinite.

(Judy Holliday, Shechinah-like, plays gin in Born Yesterday.)

So we are stuck in this world of longing. And here in this 7th week of the Omer, how do we rejoice in the Shechinah, how do we celebrate the divine in all things, when so much of our experience of this world is suffering? How do we find the holiness even where we can't find the happiness?

Here is my suggestion. Begin the way you naturally might if I were to say, "Seek the divine in the world around you." Draw your focus somewhere. The beautiful tree. The gorgeous light.  The sound of the rain or of music. But instead of jumping right to the place of trying to see the magic of the divine in that thing, draw your attention instead to your own emotion around it. Find your longing. What is its nature? Ask yourself, what am I longing for? Am I longing for everything to be this beautiful? Am I longing for things to stay this way? Am I longing to return to something I once had? Am I simply longing for the exquisite feeling I get smelling pine needles in the rain?

Then, rather than looking at the thing, look at your longing instead. Recognize it as something naturally occurring in this universe; honor it as something born of God.

Or think of someone you love or whose presence you miss. Then shift your focus to your longing or your desire and find the godliness in it.

Or think of some healing you want. And instead of visualizing the healing, visualize your desire for it and see the holiness in that desire.

For this moment it doesn't matter if your desire is fulfilled or not. Longing itself is the exhale of this life; it is sweet even when there is bitterness too.

So this week, during these remaining days of the in-between, to appreciate the Shechinah, don't look at the world but at the longing the world invokes in you. It is that longing that makes you mosthuman. And it is that longing that makes you divine.

This world, this life, deserves our longing, even if grief or suffering might follow in its wake. As the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet said,

You must grieve for this now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say "I lived" ...

May we feel all that this life invites us feel.

May we witness our own longing and see the holiness that is in it.

And may we notice the Shechinah at our side, longing with us, holy.

And let us say: