Parshat Vayakhel: G-d’s Shadow


In this week’s parsha we find the divinely inspired craftsman Betsalel, who is “wise of heart”. Betsalel is put in charge of building the mishkan, the portable tent-temple which was to serve as the holy place for Israel in the desert. Betsalel’s name means “in the shadow of G-d”, which seems to suggest the very close relationship that this inspired artist had with Divinity (for further discussion of divine art see R’ Jonathan Sacks http://www.ou.org/torah/article/gds_shadow/?sms_ss=email&at_xt=4d67395b8ef5ed0c%2C0).

His name, Betsalel, points to a quality that all of humanity posseses. As it says in the morning ritual for putting on the Talis (prayer shawl):

מַה יָּקָר חַסְדְּךָ אֱלהִים. וּבְנֵי אָדָם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ יֶחֱסָיוּן:

Mah yakar hasdecha Elohim uvnei Adam b’tsel k’nafecha y’hesayun

How precious is your kindness, Source of all Powers: the children of Adam in the shadow of your wings will shelter.

(Seder levishat tsitsit, Siddur Avodat HaLev p.128).

The reference here is explicitly to “the children of Adam”, ie. all of humanity. This is not exclusive to those with the holy spirit (ruah ha’kodesh) like Betsalel.

B’tsel c’nafecha: In the shadow of your wings. This imagery seems to combine the sense of a bird being sheltered within the wings of its parent and the sense of a bird flying high above, its shadow falling below as a guide and sign to those beneath it. Here we can read two ways in which being in the shadow of G-d manifests G-d’s kindness.

There is another verse which further develops this idea:

ה’ צלך על יד ימינך

Hashem tsilcha ad yad yeminecha

G-d will be your shadow at your right hand.

This verse, from Tehillim (Psalms), inverts the idea: here G-d is your shadow!  Rabbenu Yonah, z”l, comments:

“This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ה’ צלך על יד ימינך’—’G-d is your shadow upon your right hand.’ Just as a shadow mirrors our actions, so too does G-d act toward us as we act toward Him. If we cry to Him, He is right there crying alongside us. If we distance ourselves from Him, He distances Himself from us. And when we draw near to Him, He draws close to us.”

In what way does this manifest G-d’s kindness? One might wish it was the opposite way: when we pull way G-d pulls closer, giving us encouragement, and when we draw close G-d pulls back, spurring us on.

In Rabbenu Yonah’s image of the shadow dance  G-d’s movements act as a sign to us of our own spiritual state. When we feel the presence of G-d’s shadow- comforting presence and signs- it is a sign that we are drawing closer, when we feel distance and confusion it is a sign that we ourselves have drawn further away. Rabbenu Yonah says this is the way G-d inspires us to grow and change- this shadow dance acts a barometer for the state of our da’at– our consciousness. When we act, think, and speak in certain ways those things which we associate with closeness to G-d- more peace, more joy, a sense of flow and being in the right place, more virtue, more calm, more kindness, and the feeling of being led and being given signs, to name a few- these things increase. When we act, speak, and think in other ways then these same qualities decrease, to be replaced with their opposites. This is a sign to us that we need to do teshuva- return. We need to search our actions and see where we have drawn away from G-d and from ourselves.

Of course it should be remembered that even when the shadow of G-d is distant this is only an appearance.  Rabbi Nachman, zy”a, teaches that “No one should ever give up for himself, however fall they have fallen. Even if she is lying in the very pit of hell, she must never despair of G-d’s help. Even there she can draw close… for ‘the whole earth is filled with divine presence (m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo- Isaiah 6:3) ‘ [LM II.72]”. Further, “If a person falls from their level, he should know that it is something sent to him by the hand of heaven. The whole purpose of of this rejection is that she should be drawn closer. The reason for the fall is to awaken this individual so that she steps up her efforts to draw closer… (LM I.261)”. We see from these quotes that according to R’ Nachman G-d’s presence is never actually lessened, only our perception of it, or one might speculate, perhaps the way that G-d is manifest in our consciousness changes.

All of this seems true while we are in a relationship with G-d’ s “mere” shadow, the place where most of us can be found (at the best of times!) It is worth remembering, though, that when we have ascended to a higher level all this will be revealed as Godliness and Holiness. R’ Nachman teaches elsewhere (Sichot HaRan 136) that the “shadow” itself is created by our incomplete awareness and purification: “When you succeed in nullifying the shadow completely, turning everything into absolute nothingness, then G-d’s glory is revealed in the world. There is nothing to hide the light and cause a shadow. And then “The whole earth is filled with divine presence (Isaiah 6:3)”.

This is “the coming of the Messiah”, when “the knowledge of G-d will fill the world like the waters fill the sea” and “G-d will be one and His name will be one”, ie. there will be no perception of distance from, or absence of, divinity. As it says in the Talmud, ” ‘On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one’: is this meant to imply that right now G-d is not one? No, what it means is that in our present state we make a distinction between the different types of experiences that G-d sends us. …but in the time to come we will bless G-d for everything (Pesachim 50a)”.

We can understand this on a global level or as the time of individual attainment of this awareness. As one great tzaddik said (R’ Nachman?), “For me Moshiach (the Messiah) has already come.” This is because for him the boundary between G-d and not-G-d had collapsed, and ha-kol letova, everything was for the good.

These ideas are reflected beautifully in a recent song by Darshan (http://darshanmusic.com/):

As I wait, I will sing

I will take shelter of your wings

please do not be late

don’t delay the spring

we’ll celebrate

both Queen and King

The singer here waits for the full revelation of G-d that comes with the days of Messiah/messianic consciousness, and in the meantime sings (draws closer to G-d). He prays that the spring of renewal of the world/his own consciousness should not be delayed, for then the Queen (the Shekhina/ Shadow/Revealed, Immanent aspect of G-d, Teva/Nature, Elohim) and the King ( The Holy One, Blessed Be/G-d’s hidden, transcendent aspect/ YHWH) will be both celebrated as One.

Speedily in our days, amen.



Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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