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ExodusShekhina: Earth Mother

Parashat Va’eira  (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

“Dad – that’s Gaia,” Noah insisted.

My oldest child and I had taken to demonology and monsters in Judaism and came across a passage in Tishby’s Wisdom of the Zohar in which the Shekhina is depicted as a raging, Godzilla like figure, unimaginably powerful, destroying demonic forces and avenging the evil done to her children. For Noah, immersed in Rick Riordan books, the image was the same as those of Gaia, the Earth Mother, from Greek and Roman mythology. His insight was added to a stack of others that allowed me to understand that the female Indwelling of classical Judaism is not only the bit of God we can touch and feel and speak to here on earth; She IS the Earth.

In the Zohar, Shekhina is imbued with a cluster of meanings: sovereignty and rulership, Elohim (God), the people of Israel, the moon, the mouth and lips, the Oral Torah, Shabbat …

And she is the Earth.  

In classically rabbinic Jewish terms, Shekhina is the aspect of God that we humans can experience; the modality that can be, as it were, anthropomorphized. She is the bride of the more abstract, invisible, inscrutable, untouchable, and imperceptible aspect of God known by the tetragrammaton – YHVH. Though many texts remind us that the Shekhina is theologically never actually separate from God – since God is a perfect unity that cannot be separated – nevertheless, the rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions often describe them as separated, heaven forfend, by the transgressions of earthlings. The tzaddik, the one committed to the Jewish path of piety, has a clear purpose: to actively unify, or reveal the hidden unity of, the Shekhina and YHVH.

The male aspect of God, YHVH, remains aloof and distant, unknowable except through our Mother. Shekhina mourns being separated from YHVH and also suffers greatly the sins of her children – human beings. She is unable to turn her face from us, unable to abandon us, even if YHVH does.

For the author(s) of the Zohar, it is the Earth Mother that is the aspect of God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob perceived. The YHVH aspect of God had not yet “become known” in their time.

This is the mystical meaning of God’s extremely cryptic statement in this week’s parasha: I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not become known to them by My name YHVH (Exodus 6:3).

The rabbinic tradition Rashi brings to the verse aligns with the mystical reading. Rashi writes: “I [God] was not recognized by [the ancestors] in My attribute of ‘keeping faith’, by reason of which My name is called YHVH, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to [the ancestors] but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime].”

Rashi here speaks of the hidden God, concealed in and working through history; the master of puppets, the layer of plans, the divine orchestrator. The aspect of God who spoke to the ancestors and made promises was, it seems, the Shekhina. The modality of the One that speaks to Moshe in our parasha is “the man behind the curtain.” This is the one who arranges a cosmic plan to bring about the fulfillment of those promises 400 years later. It is only Moshe, we are taught, that can perceive this aspect of God; only Moshe that can speak to YHVH.

Our ancestors, as Daniel Matt and Hebrew College Rabbinical School Rector Rabbi Arthur Green have taught, spoke with and communed with El Shaddai, another name for Shekhina. She is heard in the wilderness, in the raw exposure to and familiarity with nature, in which our ancestors lived.

YHVH is the God concealed in the machinery of civilization. Behind man-made injustices, beyond the cruelty of wars, beneath the gathering of wealth and triumphalism, the hidden God continues to rule – imperceptible as He moves pieces in the massive machinery of human history to bring about the Redemption. In the midst of civilization, with all of its worship of man-made things, it is very hard – perhaps impossible – to hear the voice of the Shekhina, let alone perceive or trust YHVH.

The Torah explains that “when Moshe told this [name YHVH] to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Immersed in the empire of Mitzrayim, oppressed by slavery, complacent and domesticated while that civilization’s cacophony drowned out the voice of Shekhina, the Israelites could no sooner believe in El Shaddai’s ancient promises than believe that such promises would be fulfilled by YHVH. The connection to the mouth of God, to the Earth, was lost

We, slaves of our immense empire, have all but lost our connections to Shekhina. Now she is truly in exile. Now we speak of YHVH with even greater estrangement than our ancestors, afraid as we are to even pronounce this name. And, in the meantime, we are plunging off a precipice of our own idolatrous design, freefalling into a future in which global climate change is inevitable, awakening the wrath of the Earth Mother. We have sunken so far into our consumptive complacency that we have moved our theology away from Shekhina altogether to that part of God that cannot be perceived or touched but who, we hope and declare, is moving all the important pieces behind the scenes, inscrutably manipulating billions of moving parts, so that despite ourselves we will be saved. And yet, were someone to come saying that they were sent by YHVH to bring us out of slavery, we would no more listen to them than the Israelites listened to Moshe. Our generation, too, it seems, will need a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” to yank us out of our slavery.

Rabbi Elisha Herb serves the community of Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Oregon. A 2016 graduate of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, he is also a wilderness river guide for the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education in Monticello, Utah.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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