During the High Holidays, we strive to fashion our heart to become a dwelling place for God in the physical, earthly realm, a dirah batachtonim. However, the earliest aggadic (storytelling) midrash, Genesis Rabbah (4th or 5th century), taught that “the root/essence of God’s presence was in the lower creatures / `iqar Shekhinah batachtonim haytah.” (19:7)
If the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, was essentially in all creatures, how did we arrive at the idea that the primary dwelling place of God was within the human heart? This is the journey I would like to share below.
According to Genesis Rabbah, even though the Shekhinah was interwoven with the physical world from the beginning, human sin drove the presence of God further and further away from the world. This alienation was “put into practice” so to speak in later midrashic texts. Midrash Y’lamdeinu, in opposition to Genesis Rabbah, taught in the 6th or 7th century that humanity was supposed to be the locus of God’s presence in this world, and that this is what it means for us to be “rulers batachtonim”. (Batey Midrashot 1, B’reishit 9) If Genesis Rabbah describes how sin generated the flight of Shekhinah from a world that was once full of God’s presence, Y’lamdeinu describes instead a world which was never the home of Shekhinah.
Y’lamdeinu remodels how we see the world: it is as if sin not only drives Shekhinah out of the world, but also from our memory of what the world was and should be. By the time Exodus Rabbah was written, some three or more centuries later, the teaching of Genesis Rabbah had literally become reversed, so that it now read: “The essence of the Shekhinah was not among the tachtonim.” (13:2)
Kabbalah often resisted this world-negating attitude. Yosef Gikatilla (13th century) taught that the purpose of Kabbalah and of all human endevour was to remake the world as the fullest dwelling place of God. (Sha`arey Orah, p.16) But sometimes Kabbalah pushed in the opposite direction, saying that even humanity could not be a dwelling place of the divine. Instead, only Am Yisra’el, the Jewish people, could fashion a divine dwelling place.
Later Kabbalistic and Hasidic interpretation deeply personalized and psychologized this idea. Azaryah DeFano in the 16th century explained that by returning to God with one’s whole heart, one “sets up a dirah for the Shekhinah within his heart”. (Yonat Eilem, ch.9, p.7b) Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the Alter Rebbe who founded Chabad in the 1770’s, taught that when the soul’s love for God burns so fiercely in your heart that you wish to leave the body, you should “return to your heart” and remember that “you are living in this body…in order to be a dirah batachtonim for God’s oneness.” (Tanya, ch.50, p.266)
These teachings bring us close to the beautiful idea that we each must work on our hearts in order to make a dwelling place for God within us, which fits so meaningfully with the High Holidays.
But Rosh Hashanah is not just the time of returning and t’shuvah for the Jewish people. We like to say that it is also the beginning of Creation, hayom harat `olam, literally “the day which conceives all time” that will flow, from the beginning to the end of Creation. It is also the time when the world itself is judged, Yom Din. Is it enough to return to God and repair ourselves, without redeeming the world that surrounds us? Can we do work on our own hearts, without also working to revive the radiance of the Shekhinah in the whole world?
In fact, there is a more eco-centric, bio-centric interpretation of dirah batachtonim in Chasidut that we can lean on to answer this question. This interpretation envisions creating a divine dirah from the world itself, and it can be found in the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He wrote:
Since the essence of the commandments is to make for the Holy One, blessed be, a dirah batachtonim, it is necessary to fulfill them by means of Nature/hateva` really/mamash (meaning, through physical actions using physical objects), so that the world’s Nature itself / teva` ha`olam `atsmo will be made into a dwelling place. (Liqutey Sichot 13, p.40)
Schneersohn takes this idea one step further in another passage, where he interprets the Alter Rebbe’s teaching that during Elul, the time leading up to Rosh Hashanah, “the king is in the field”. The Alter Rebbe explained that God’s closeness to us in the month of Elul is like a king who is traveling and camps outside the city in a field, where all are able to greet him, without the formality of the royal court. (Liqutey Torah, R’eih, p.32a) The Lubavitcher rebbe, however, asserts that the true meaning of this metaphor is not that the king has come to camp in the field for Elul, but rather that the field was already the real dwelling place of God’s essence:
“The king is in the field”: God’s essence, blessed be, is in the field, especially/davka, as is known, that among the lower ones/batachtonim, davka, is the dwelling place/dirah of His essence, blessed be. (Liqutey Sichot 4, p.1344)
God’s true place is not in the palace, Schneersohn explains, for the Alter Rebbe doesn’t say “the king goes to the field” in Elul but rather “the king is (already) in the field”.
Though the field is a place where a human king (or a human being) does not normally dwell, it is the place where God dwells. For the Alter Rebbe, “the field” meant the time and place where we can encounter God’s essence without the “l’vushim”, the trappings, of the King’s crown and majesty. But Schneersohn takes us beyond metaphor, emphasizing that this field is Nature itself, this physical world, rather than some anthropocentric realm separated from Nature. The ultimate end of this process, Schneersohn wrote, is that “the perfecting/shleymut of Nature is that it will be recognized openly that Nature is divinity.” (Torat Menachem 2, p.100)
There are a few things we can learn from the way the concept of dirah evolved over centuries that may help us today. First, according to some texts, the more-than-human world is or was already the dwelling place for the Shekhinah, already the home for divinity. Second, various texts identify God’s dirah with the natural world, the earthly creatures, humanity, the Jewish people, and the human heart, creating a picture of levels within levels. Third, our texts describe a trajectory in which the Shekhinah is driven away from Nature because of human sin, and can be brought back into Nature through human righteousness. Through this process, the divine image can shine more and more through every level of the world in its fullness.
Anthropocentrically, one could say that as the human heart becomes a dirah batachtonim, so too does the world surrounding us. But from a more biocentric perspective, perhaps the truth is that when our hearts become dwelling places for the divine, we become able to perceive the indwelling of divinity that is already in the world.
For us, this is not just metaphor, because human sin has indeed distorted the divine energy that once coursed abundantly through Nature. Whether the king is already in the field, or the king is coming into the field, the field also means the environment, the ecosystem, the real land, where we can either push away or discover the divine. Let us meet the challenge of celebrating the birthing of a world, our world, by going out to the real fields to reveal God’s being and presence.
“Come my beloved, let us go out to the field…there I will give you my love.” (Song of Songs 7:12-13)
This article draws on material from David’s book Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, pp.336-9. It first appeared in Tikkun Daily blog.