Shechinah שכינה (also spelled Shekhinah) is derived from the word shochen שכן, “to dwell within.” The Shechinah is G‑d as G‑d is dwelling within. Sometimes we translate Shechinah as “The Divine Presence.”

G‑d as She

The word Shechinah is feminine, and so when we refer to G‑d as the Shechinah, we say “She.” Of course, we’re still referring to the same One G‑d, just in a different modality.

After all, you were probably wondering why we insist on calling G‑d “He.” We’re not talking about a being limited by any form—certainly not a body that could be identified as male or female.

But consider this: As soon as we just In that duality, we take the female role, so that He calls us She and we call Him He.begin to refer to G‑d, we have already compromised His oneness. Because we have already created a duality—there is us and there is G‑d. In that duality, we take the female role, so that He calls us She and we call Him He. Then we do whatever we can to mend the schism between us and return to one.

How the Shechinah Was Exiled

You may have heard of the primordial disaster, a creation narrative first told by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as “the Ari.” The narrative is told in dazzling, spectacular metaphor, fit for a grand eye-candy sci-fi movie. But it is all metaphor. Metaphor of a reality no human being could ever imagine. And so it is told in these fabulous terms:

Prior to the creation of our chain of worlds, another order was first created, that of Tohu. Tohu was the first example of planned obsolescence: it was designed to fail. Tohu is the source of every type of passion and desire that has the potential to destroy everything in its wake, including itself. It was designed with absolute intensity, so that the energy it contained would be in complete conflict with the vessels its energy entered. And so, Tohu brought about its own destruction.

But for a purpose.

From that initial catastrophe, the highest sparks fell to the lowest places. Think of an explosion: Those elements upon which the greatest force is exerted will fly the furthest from the core of the explosion. Which tells us that to find the most powerful remnants of the essence-light of Tohu, we need to journey to the lowest of the worlds that explosion generated.

Where is the lowest of worlds? You’re in it. This is the world of total otherness, a world where there dwell creatures that have no sense of anything else other than this world. Some even sense that they themselves are the masters of this world, or even that nothing else exists other than themselves. It is a material world: Things couldn’t get more discretely tangible, more self-absorbed, more otherly, than they are down here.

Which is why the Shechinah descends within this world: to seek out those most precious sparks, to rescue them from their shells of darkness, to reconnect them to their source above so that they become once again meaningful and divine—all through us, Her agents, so that this world and this life of ours plays out as not just another zero-sum game, but as an investment with incomparable returns.

In that search, Her destiny becomes wrapped up in theirs, wrapped up in darkness and in confusion. So much so that She cannot redeem those sparks without redeeming Herself. And in that struggle, as we will see, She redeems not only the sparks, but the darkness itself.

The Shechinah’s Secret

This story of the Shechinah is often called “The Secret of the Exile of the Shechinah.” It is called a secret because it contains a puzzle, this time an oxymoron in its very title, one that cannot be entirely solved from within our frame of reference:

Can the Creator of all things become trapped within that which S/He created?

How is it possible that the Shechinah—G‑d Herself—could be in exile? Can a prisoner be imprisoned by his own guards in a prison of his own making? Can the Creator of all things become trapped within that which S/He created? Can a singularity be trapped within itself?

The question is not of some distant, abstract being. The soul that breathes within us is a fractal of the Shechinah, and the journey of that soul mirrors the drama of the Shechinah, as one cell of a hologram contains the whole. Understanding the paradox of our own journey and exile will help us fathom the depth of this secret of the Shechinah. Perhaps it will even hint to some notion of its resolution.

Like the Shechinah, our soul is not here for her own sake—she (the soul is also called a she) is perfect before her descent below. She comes here, as does the Shechinah, to redeem the sparks of the body in which she is infused, of the personality she is given, and of the portion of this world to which she is assigned.

We call this process birur and tikkun. Birur means to sort out the good from the bad, the desirable from the waste, much as a prospector sifts through the sand for flakes of gold, or a smith separates the pure metal from the dross. So too, we struggle to discard the bad, the ugly and the deceptions that surround us, seeking out all the divine sparks they contain. Seeking value wherever it can be found.

Birur can be performed only when wisdom is the master; as the Zohar says, “With wisdom they will be purified.”1 The wisdom to which the Zohar refers is a kind of higher vision, one that permits us to transcend our own personal desires and surrender to a higher truth. A wisdom that allows us to see beyond the mud—mostly our own mud—to recognize the gold that is there, embrace it, and distinguish it from its caked, dark shell. It is also a wisdom that ties us tightly to the heavens above, so as not to be dragged down by the lime pits below.

Tikkun is the second step, when the divine spark is connected to its proper place. At this point it sheds its outer, muddy crust, and begins to glow through the shell that shrouded it, so that the shell itself is transformed to become divine.

This is the profit gained through the deficit of Tohu’s catastrophic fall: not only are the sparks returned to their place, but the artifacts in which they entrapped themselves now too become divine.

Your footsteps are directed from above to bring you to those divine sparks that belong to your soul alone.

Wherever your feet lead you, they are directed from above, to bring you into proximity to those divine sparks that belong to your soul alone. It may be a herb waiting to provide its healing powers, a stroke of wisdom that has yet to find an understanding heart, a human relationship that must be healed, a grand landscape that has been waiting to grant inspiration. If you learn to say a blessing over your food before eating, then a fruit somewhere in the world may await that blessing of yours. If you have learned to study Torah, there may be a place in the world sustained by divine sparks that have been waiting since the beginning of Creation to provide you an inspiring place to study, so that your words of Torah will redeem them.

Whenever some new harmony is made in G‑d’s world, whenever it is endowed in new divine meaning, another redemption has been made; the completion is yet nearer.

Recycled Souls

With you as her agent uncovering and redeeming those sparks, the Shechinah digs Herself yet deeper, lower, into yet greater darkness, to find sparks still unknown. Not without compensation. As with the sparks themselves, the greater Her descent, the higher She will later ascend.

The same is true with this soul of yours which has had to return many times to this world until her job would be complete. And on the path of her mission, almost inevitably she will fall at times into the mire. She falls when she is blinded by the deceptions of the darkness, tricked by the passions of the beast into which she has been infused, and bribed by the ego in which she has been encased. Now she must redeem herself as well, and in doing so she not only redeems the most hidden sparks—she transforms the most intransigent darkness to which those sparks have given life.

The Shechinah Herself also stumbles and falls into the mud. Her children, our own souls, bring her there. So that now She, too, can no longer redeem them without redeeming Herself. Her destiny becomes wrapped up in theirs.

By now, all our souls have been recycled many times. What your soul accomplished in previous descents, and what is left to be accomplished—all that is of necessity hidden from you. As Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote, “Those who know do not say, and those who say do not know.” For if we would know, we would accomplish without struggle. And it is the struggle itself that brings out the innermost powers, the powers of redemption.

As with the sparks, and as with the Shechinah, the further the soul descends, the greater will be her ultimate ascent. Indeed, there is only ascent. For the descent itself, in retrospect, is the active stage that powers the ascent.

Being Within

The mystery of the exile of the Shechinah applies to the soul as well: If the soul is G‑dly, the very breath of G‑d within us, how can she descend? More so, how can she be imprisoned and limited by the bonds of a physical body?

This world cannot be healed except by those who dwell within it.

The answer lies in the very process we are describing. Birur, tikkun—these cannot happen from afar. This world cannot be healed and transformed except by those who dwell within it. Allow the Infinite Light to shine into our world unshielded, and there is no world—it would vanish as a shadow before a bright light. Tikkun means keeping the world standing while repairing from within—as one might renovate a home without disturbing its inhabitants. The ultimate tikkun is a harmony of a world that can contain Infinite Light and yet remain a world.

To do that requires something that is of the world and yet beyond it. It requires a captive. And so the Shechinah, and our souls that are sparks of the Shechinah, place themselves in voluntary captivity so they can do the job from inside.

Monique Sternin, an international social activist, was also an inside worker. She tells how she once arrived in New Zealand to help the aboriginals there. An aboriginal woman told her, “If you are here to help me, I do not need your help, and it will not help anyways. But if you are here because your destiny is tied to mine, then we can work together to repair all this.” That is the process of tikkun.

We are all international activists—the yeshivah student struggling for clarity in an abstruse Talmudic passage, the storeowner who refuses to sell faulty merchandise, the little girl joyfully lighting her candle before Shabbat, the hiker who reaches the top of her climb and breathlessly recites a blessing to the Creator for the magnificent view, the young father who has just now started wrapping tefillin every morning, the subway commuter who lent the guy next to him a shoulder to sleep upon, and the simple Jew who checks for a kosher symbol on the package before making a purchase. Our destiny is tied to the destiny of those books, that merchandise, that time of the week, that mountain, that morning rush, that neighbor and that train, and the food in that package. We cannot live without them, and their redemption cannot come without us. We are all inside workers.

Yet after all is said, the question still burns: G‑d in captivity?!

Truth, after all, is not all about answers. A burning question can contain more truth than a comfortable answer. In this case, if we would understand the answer and grasp it fully, we would feel fine right where we are. We would effectively no longer be captives. Grasping the answer would sabotage the mission.

The Deepest Sparks

If you’ve ever set out to clean up a teenager’s room, you can probably relate to the following: Daunted by the task ahead of you, you cleverly start with the big stuff. Having dislodged some furniture, moving them into appropriate corners, tossed a few cardboard boxes into recycling, and discovering that, yes, there is a floor down there, only then can you really get started. But that’s also when it becomes apparent just how ugly this mess really is. Now is time for the scraping, grinding, elbow grease and harsh chemicals. The hardest tasks are always left for last.

The greater the spark, the more intense the battle.

So too with our messy world. As soon as the initial sparks are redeemed, yet more challenging missions arise. As time progresses, the divine sparks become harder to discover, locked within the darkest realms, stubbornly refusing to be extricated from there. The darkness itself fights back, lashing out at any soul that comes to take away its captives. The greater the spark, the more intense the battle.

Eventually, once you have reached deep within your soul and revealed its most hidden powers, then the most hidden sparks also become revealed. As it turns out, redemption of those sparks is intrinsically bound with the redemption of your innermost soul.

The battle goes yet deeper. There are those sparks that cannot be redeemed by a head-on attack, but only by failure and return. Failure is one of those things that cannot be prearranged. Yet it is only through failure that you can redeem not only the most intense sparks of Tohu, but the darkness itself. The darkness caused you to fail. And now, when you return, it is that experience of the darkness that drives you with unstoppable impetus. You have become what the Zohar calls “a master of return, who is drawn to G‑d with greater power than the one who has never failed.”2

An immeasurably great power. The power of darkness.