The Spiritual Potential of Heart-Felt Connection

A teaching about the Shekhinah — the Divine Presence — and how it lands in the relational field

This an excerpt from Rabbi Matthew Ponak’s class with the Theosophical Society in America: The Four Worlds of Kabbalah

The Space Between – Community as a Conduit for Mystical Experience in Kabbalah (Full Transcript):

I’m going to be presenting a few relational teachings because some prayers and meditations really are individual. In the Torah tradition, Judaism is very communal; it’s very familial, very tribal. It happens between people in communal spaces. A very famous teaching about the Shekhinah; again, Shekhinah is this sort of opening into the spiritual realm.

It’s also the divine presence, basically. You could call it flow, you could say presence, or you could say there’s just something in the air that we get that sense. It says if two sit together and there are words of Torah spoken between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them. So in this space between “words of Torah” can mean literal wisdom sayings from Judaism, but it could also mean wisdom or a connected conversation, a spiritual conversation perhaps, but also just in the flow. Things are alive; people are being real and authentic, talking about holy subjects, talking about things that matter. There’s a sense that it’s like a landing pad, like a resting place, like that movie Field of Dreams. It’s also a book, “If you build it, he will come.” Someone builds a baseball diamond from a vision, and then all these famous baseball players from the past come, and his father comes and visits.

It’s, they say “l’havdil” [to separate], i.e. it’s a little different in this situation. But the idea is we can set the stage, and sometimes the divine is going to appear. One of the most beloved ways of setting the stage is having a connective, spiritual, wise moment with someone. You’ll notice here that the word “spoken” is in square brackets because literally in Hebrew, it’s not there. Another way of reading this is “if two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them.”

There’s a story told by a Kabbalist by the name of Moshe Cordovero, lived 500 years ago, give or take. And he tells a story about walking in nature with his teacher. They’re just walking almost aimlessly from his home. They start speaking; they don’t know exactly what they’re going to be saying. And pretty soon, this Kabbalist describes the spontaneous manifesting of new insights and wisdom coming through their shared space. So it’s not that they’re speaking these words between them anymore; it’s actually that there are literally words of Torah between them.

They have created a portal or a sanctuary: a temple for the Shekhinah to rest between them as they’re speaking. It’s a two-person spontaneous insight that’s coming through. The teacher, for anyone who’s interested, happened to be — Moshe Cordovero’s teacher — was Shlomo Alkabetz, who wrote a very famous poem, Lekhah Dodi, in the Jewish liturgy. It’s basically someone’s love poem to their own soul, inviting them to greet the Shekhinah and greet the Sabbath. But this is one of the ways that it comes through.

Another form is a traditional prayer service with ten people, not just two, now it’s a shared space where the Shekhinah can rest. This is from the Talmud. It says, “From where is it derived that ten people who pray, the Shekhinah is with them? As it is stated, God,” — Elohim is the divine name in Hebrew — “stands in the congregation of God.”

Elohim stands at the congregation of El.” Essentially, there’s a shared space that we can create where there’s a sense of equality, and the Shekhinah can rest in the middle or amongst us. If I were to interpret this, even though it came before Kabbalah really existed, I would say, Elohim is a divine name associated with the Shekhinah, and El is a divine name associated with love and kindness. So actually, both are required that we can create a place where there’s not just people but love actually existing in between us can be an invitation for that to land.

And this [image] is sort of a traditional space. You see particular head garments, and we would call these tefillin in Hebrew. It’s like an amulet that is connected to the head and the arm. These are prayer shawls. This is the kind of thing that could happen in an ecstatic dance space. There’s no specific practice needed. I mean, in Jewish spaces, there is something about tapping into traditional forms, connecting with ancestry in that way that can help. But if people have been in a place of communal flow, that’s what this is. This is divine presence in a group, resting. There’s an academic, Ninian Smart, who defined mysticism as basically the pursuit of an introverted and ineffable experience.

There’s nothing introverted about this; it is possible to have ineffable sacred experiences that are shared, where multiple people are tapping into them. In fact, the defining moment in Jewish history happens at Mount Sinai, where the whole people are gathered on the mountain. Literally, in the Torah, there are questions of what exactly goes on, but mystically or rabbinic interpretations tend to be that God speaks to everyone, and everyone hears simultaneously. There’s a mystical teaching from the Sephat Emet, an early 20th-century Hasidic master from Poland, who says, ‘Well, everyone in that moment heard something different.’ So you can see, it’s like the rays are coming from one source, but they’re going in many directions in this photo.

He says everyone heard and saw their true self in that moment. Like they went right to the core of their being, and then they didn’t really need to obey commandments anymore because they just felt it in the very depth of their soul. It was who they were. So, and then he finally summarizes by saying, “That’s how it is when God speaks.” When God speaks, it’s possible for every person to have a reaction that is their own, yet there’s a unity, simultaneously.