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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Reeh: Seeking Hashem's Presence

This essay is dedicated in honour of the yahrzeit of my mother, Ann Kennard, Chanah bat Yosef, which falls this coming Wednesday night and Thursday. In the absence of saying kaddish or leading a minyan, may the Torah that we learn be a z’chut for the neshama.

The parasha of Re’eh focuses largely on the religious life that the Jews will lead after entering Israel. Sacrifices and consecrated items are to be brought to “the place that (Hashem) will choose”. The treatment accorded to this site (i.e.where the mishcan comes to rest and another place where, at some future time, the Bet Mikdash is to be built) is contrasted with the idolatrous infrastructure that the incoming people will encounter.

(ג) וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתָם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת מַצֵּבֹתָם וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת שְׁמָם מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.

(ד) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לה׳ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

(ה) כִּי אִם אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם מִכׇּל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ וּבָאתָ שָּׁמָּה.

(3) You shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim (deified trees) with fire; and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place.

(4) You shall not do so to Hashem your God.

(5) But to the place which Hashem your God shall choose out of all your tribes, to put His name there, to his dwelling you shall seek, and there you shall come. (Devarim, Chapter 12)

The idolatrous sites are to be thoroughly destroyed. Hashem’s chosen place will be different. It is to be sought. But what is meant by לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ  - “His habitation (Shechina you shall seek”? When and how do we fulfil this command?

For Rashi (11th century France), quoting the midrashic Sifrei (Devarim 62) the implication is simple. One seeks Hashem’s presence by going to Shiloh, where the mishcan was located (the Maharal explains that verse 11 refers to the period from the building of the Bet Mikdash and thereafter; previous verses, including ours, relate to the period of the mishcan).

The Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) expresses a similar idea, but expands the “target” of the seeking, by saying that Hashem is to be sought throughout the land of Israel, “for there is “Hashem’s presence”. These words of the Ibn Ezra imply that the divine presence elevates the entire land, not just the immediate environs of the Temple (though an alternative version of the Ibn Ezra replaces “land” by “ark”, meaning that the Ibn Ezra severely limits, rather than expands, the locus of Hashem’s presence).

But the Rambam (12th century Spain) sees in this mitzvah more than to an existing sanctuary. In the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Melachim, 1:1) he lists three mitzvot that become pertinent when the Jews enter the land of Israel - to appoint a king, to end Amalek’s evil and to build the Bet Mikdash. The source for this third mitzvah is, according to the Rambam, our verse, “לשכנו תדרשו ובאת שמה” - “to His dwelling you shall seek, and there you shall come”. “Seeking Hashem’s presence” does not just mean “looking for” it, but actually facilitating its residence on earth. 

Alas today we have no Bet Mikdash, and most will agree that we are not ready to commence its re-building. Does this mitzvah therefore still apply?

The Ramban (13th century Israel) states that “seeking” the presence requires more than going from A to B. It means “you shall ask ‘where is the way to the house of Hashem?’ and each person shall say to their friend ‘let us go and ascend to the mountain of Hashem to the house of the G-d of Ya’akov’ (Yeshaya 2:3)”. Seeking is the excitement, the emotion, the sharing of the experience with others, as we make the journey to “the house of Hashem”. This aspect of the mitzvah we can, and should, maintain even today, when visiting Israel or, as is our current situation, when yearning to do so.

The Emek Dvar (19th century Lithuania) explains that the mitzvah is fulfilled every time we pray and turn our faces in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple. As the Tanach says (Melachim 1 8:35) this is “praying to this place” - i.e. praying to Hashem, while directed towards His place. Clearly this aspect of the mitzvah can be fulfilled anywhere and at any time.

The Mishna (Rosh Hashanna 4:3 and Succah 3:12) states we take the lulav all seven days of Succot “זכר למקדש” - in memory of the Bet Mikdash. The Biblical mitzvah of lulav applies for seven days in the place described as “before Hashem” - i.e the Temple (Vaykira 23:41) -  but for only one day outside. Yet, after the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted that the practice that had been unique to the Temple should be extended throughout the Jewish world. 

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanna 30a) comments:

ומנלן דעבדינן זכר למקדש? דאמר קרא (ירמיהו ל:יז) ״כי אעלה ארוכה לך וממכותיך ארפאך נאם ה' כי נדחה קראו לך ציון היא דורש אין לה״ מכלל דבעיא דרישה:

And from where do we derive that one performs actions in memory of the Temple? As the verse states: “For I will restore health to you, and I will heal you of your wounds, said Hashem; because they have called you an outcast: She is Zion, there is none who seek her” (Yirmiyahu 30:17). Therefore (Zion) needs seeking.

Rav Soloveitchik (20th century America) distinguishes between customs which were instituted “in memory of the destruction” and those, like the seven-day lulav and others, which were “in memory of the Temple”. The former involve or invoke mourning; the latter are positive not negative, joyous not despondent. They are designed to re-create the sense of being “before Hashem” - which used to be experienced at the Bet Mikdash - wherever a Jew is found. This, say the Gemara is how we “seek His presence”

The Sfat Emet (19th century Poland) also addresses the verse from Yirmiyahu and the Gemera’s conclusion of “‘there is none who seek her’, therefore (Zion) needs seeking” by explaining that the Temple’s destruction has removed a source of kedusha (holiness) from the world. But as our opening verses stated (Devarim 12:3-4), whereas the destruction of idolatrous sites removes all vestiges of what was once there, the Bet Mikdash is different (see Devarim 12:4). The kedusha that was to be found there cannot be totally abolished; a remnant will always remain. When the Gemara tells us that “‘there is none who seek her’, therefore (Zion) needs seeking” it is our task to seek that remnant and to elevate it to its former grandeur. This, says the Sfat Emet , we achieve by constantly seeking the Temple’s re-building, praying for it, requesting it with our words and our hearts. As he concludes: 

עי"ז יתעורר כח הרשימה הנשאר קיים לעולם ויהי' הגאולה עי"ז במהרה בימינו אמן:

And through this (prayer and emotion), the power of the eternally remaining remnant will be awakened, bringing about the redemption, speedily, in our days, Amen” (S’fat Emet, Re’eh, 5637)

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