Midrash: The Place
What is God?
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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.
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?
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:
‘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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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