Midrash: The Place ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 28

			There are many names of God in the Biblical, Rabbinic, and mystical worlds of Judaism. ‎There are the standard names and there are names made up of bizarre combinations of ‎Hebrew letters. There are Kabbalistic names, there are philosophical names, there are Hasidic ‎names, and there are new age names. There are names in every imaginable language that Jews ‎have spoken. All in all, it may be possible to dig up over 100 Jewish names of God. ‎
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But there is one name that tops them all in unexpectedness. It isn’t the least bit bizarre or ‎mystical. In fact, it is rather mundane. It is so commonplace that one wonders how it ever ‎became a name of God. It is the Hebrew word Hamakom, which means ‘The Place’. You ‎read that right. One needn’t seek any hidden Kabbalistic meanings behind this word. It ‎means exactly what it seems to mean. It just means ‘the Place’. How on earth could this have ‎become a Jewish name for God? ‎
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The origins of this name are unknown. They may go back to second temple times, but the ‎earliest known source is from the Mishna. By Midrashic times the use of this name had clearly ‎expanded. It is found in many instances and in many different applications. There is one ‎Midrash that actually cuts through the fog and tells us what this name really means, or at least ‎what it meant at the time this Midrash was composed. The Midrash is quoted in the name of ‎Rabbi Huna, who is quoting Rabbi Ami: ‎
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‎‘Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Ami: Why is the nickname of the Holy One called ‎Place. (It is) because He is the ‘Place’ of the world and the world is not the place of Him. ‎From the verse “place is with Me” we understand that the Holy One is the place of the world ‎and the world is not the place of Him. Rabbi Yitzchak said: it is written, “The dwelling of the ‎eternal God”. We do not know if the Holy One is the place of the world or if the world is the ‎place of Him. From another verse, “Hashem, you are a dwelling” (Psalms 90:1), it becomes ‎known that the Holy One is the place of His world and His world is not His place. Rabbi ‎Abba the son of Yodan said: (it is analogous) to a warrior riding on a horse with his weapons ‎leaning this way and that. The horse is secondary to the rider and the rider is not secondary to ‎the horse…’ (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 68:9 or 10 depending on the edition). ‎
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Analysis ‎
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This Midrash is widely quoted in rabbinic sources and even more widely in recent Torah ‎thought. It is actually one of the better-known explanations of a name (or nickname) of God. ‎In new age times, this has become one of the most popular ways of imaging God. It seems to ‎hit home with the post-personal God crowd who want a more universal deity that isn’t ‎limited by time, space, and personal agendas. There is no question that this idea opens up ‎wide vistas in the Jewish understanding of God. The name/nickname is usually not translated ‎as ‘Place’, owing to the incongruity of using such a mundane word for such a lofty concept. ‎Alternatives include ‘space’, which has obvious problems as we shall see, and ‘the ‎Omnipresent’, a daunting looking word with even more daunting implications. ‎
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The questions on this name and this Midrash are easy to spot. First, we have to ask about the ‎name itself. What does this name really mean? Granted the Midrash addresses the question ‎about why we use this name, but the answer seems to beg another question. How is God the ‎‎‘place/space’ of the universe? Why does the Midrash have to state the negative, ‘the universe ‎is not the place of Him’, if it has already concluded that ‘He the place of the universe’? Why ‎does the Midrash then state that there is a verse that is vague on this point? Finally, what is ‎this analogy with the horse and the rider? Does the analogy really help in elucidating this ‎deep concept? ‎
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It is apparent from the fact that the Midrash questions which side of the equation is the truth ‎‎– the universe is the place of God, or God is the place of the universe – that the truth was not ‎obvious. It could go either way. Let’s look at both sides. If the universe is the place of God, it ‎means that God is located within the universe. God could be in one or more places in the ‎universe, or in the entire universe. But God is not beyond the universe. This has highly ‎significant theological ramifications. For one thing, God is limited. God may be huge – ‎reaching to the very borders of the universe – but limited nevertheless. Second, and more ‎important, God could not be all-powerful in any ultimate sense. If God is only as big as the ‎universe, there has to be some thing or some place that is beyond the domain of God. God, to ‎some degree, is localized. ‎
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If, on the other hand, the universe is contained within God, there are not necessarily any ‎limits to God’s scope. God certainly could have power over everything in the universe. ‎Beyond that is anybody’s guess, but there are no reasons for any limitations. But there is ‎more. Within the universe itself, if all is contained with God, God’s knowledge of it would ‎have to be everywhere. There would be nothing hidden from God. This question comes with ‎high stakes. ‎
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It isn’t obvious which one is true. We only know the answer because it is revealed in verses in ‎the Torah. From that cryptic verse in Exodus, ‘place is with Me’, we catch a hint of this ‎dramatic idea. ‘Place is with Me’. I alone have ‘place’. I alone, am beyond the dimension of ‎space and perhaps time. I alone, am aware of every single place and event in My entire ‎domain, My entire created dimension of reality. I made it all; it exists within Me. ‎
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This same question, as antiquated as it sounds, still haunts our search for the ultimate nature ‎of reality. The current scientific view of the universe is that it came into being as an ‎infinitesimally small point that exploded and has been expanding ever since. There appears to ‎be no limits to how much it could expand other than the mutually attractive force of gravity ‎that may pull everything back to a central point. Other than that, it could keep on expanding. ‎But the obvious question on this is to ask what it is expanding into? Is it expanding into ‎empty space? If that is the case than why not just say that there is an infinite amount of ‎empty space that the matter of the universe is expanding into. If the expanding universe ‎includes not just the matter of the universe but also the space (the current theory) then it is ‎like an ever-expanding bubble. But what is on the other side of that bubble? These are ‎unavoidable questions that have no logical or even conceivable answer. To say that on the ‎border of our bubble are other bubbles just moves the question out another layer – what is ‎beyond that collection of bubbles? ‎
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It’s a tough one. The obvious answer – an answer so obvious that scientists cringe at the ‎mention of it – is that it is God, or whatever one chooses to call the reality on the other side ‎of the bubble, that is out there. This is the answer. There is a reality ‘out there’ but it is no way ‎comparable to the reality that is ‘in there’. The ‘in there’ reality is contained within the ‘out ‎there’ reality. But the idea contained within this Midrash goes beyond this. It says that God, ‎through this name of Hamakom has the dimension of space in the divine reality. Space as we ‎know it is a part of God. It, and everything in it, is a part of God. God is ‘everywhere’ in the ‎sense of ‘every where’. There is no ‘where’, or no ‘place’, that isn’t within God. ‎
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The midrash gives that analogy of the horse and the rider. God is the rider and the universe is ‎the horse. The horse may go faster or slower, but it is only under the direction or the approval ‎of the rider. The universe is this incredibly diverse and active place. It has gone through the ‎birth pangs of the Big Bang and sustained the billions of years of change and expansion. That ‎expanding universe expands only because God kicks it into gear. It expands because the rider ‎wills it to. It is the will of the rider that the horse obeys. ‎
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What lies beyond the edges of the universe? What is the universe expanding into? It expands ‎into the nothingness of God’s uncreated reality. Creation is a constantly expanding theme – a ‎tapestry upon which is written the ever-expanding history of the universe. Every little ‎movement of interstellar stardust is written on that tapestry.  Every thought in the minds of ‎sentient beings, like the profound insights and the tragic emotions of human beings, emerges ‎from that tapestry like the subtleties in the face of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. This all takes place ‎in God’s reality, a domain that has no more accurate description than the simple word ‎‎‘Hamakom’. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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What is the image of the ‘Place’? To perceive the Makom image requires a great deal of ‎expansion of the mind. It is not enough to merely conceive a huge God who somehow ‎encompasses the universe and sticks out a little beyond it. That would resemble a bubble ‎within a larger bubble. In the end, it’s just another bubble. The Makom is not a bigger bubble. ‎It is the dimension of reality itself. To perceive this image one must imagine non-existence – a ‎rather difficult process. ‎
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Non-existence means the uncreated reality that lies beyond the edge of creation. It is that ‎nothingness ‘out there’. It is real, of that there is no doubt. It’s just that it isn’t real in the ‎sense that bananas and shoe polish are real. It isn’t even real in the sense that light waves are ‎real, as flimsy as they may be. It is the reality of what could be, or what will be. It is waiting ‎for its turn to be, in the terrestrial sense. The Makom is the entirety of those two domains - the ‎existent and the non-existent. The first expands into the second. The second becomes a part ‎of the first. It is a cosmic dance taking place in the Mind that makes it all real. ‎The Makom image is literally a mind-expanding image. ‎
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In spite of the rather lofty and somewhat hallucinogenic tenor of all this, it is surprisingly easy ‎to do. It just requires letting go a little of some treasured notions of reality. It’s almost like ‎flipping a switch in the mind. Let go of the limited universe of stars and space and all that. ‎Go beyond it, beyond the farthest star, the farthest black hole. Step out into the void that lies ‎beyond, not because it is farther out but because it is not yet quite real in the classic sense. ‎Step into a region of the mind of God in which creation hasn’t taken place yet. The Makom is ‎present in both regions – the created region you came from and the uncreated region you are ‎stepping into. Feel that ‘place’, that source of reality. You are in it. You are a part of it. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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Is this really hitting on the reality of God and the interface of God and creation or is it just ‎some spiritual daydreaming? Have images like this hit on something fundamental or are they ‎just one more imaginative human construct that has nothing to do with reality? ‎



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