Shulhan Aruch: Master of the Universe
What is God?
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Through the long centuries, what did a Jew call God? What was the name/term they used when they wanted to directly address their Creator? Was it Elohim? Was it YHWH? Was it Adonai, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, El Shaddai, Eh’yeh, or some other ancient name? The best evidence we have out there points to a completely different name, one that we haven’t explored yet. This name is Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe. It comes up hundreds of times in the early rabbinic texts – once in the Mishna and all over the place in the Talmud and Midrash. In fact, it is second to ‘The Holy One, blessed be He’ in number of appearances. But more important, Master of the Universe was the way these very God-conscious rabbis actually spoke to God, not merely the way they referred to God. As far as we can tell, when a Jew, rabbi or not, wanted to talk to God as directly as possible, this was the way to get God’s ear.
If somebody asks, what about the more common name ‘Hashem’, which really represents the actual name of God and is the standard address today? The answer is that there is no indication until fairly recently that people actually used the term Hashem to speak to God. The term was widely used as a substitute for the Tetragrammaton, but this may have been its only use. Master of the Universe, or its translation in whatever language Jews spoke as a vernacular, was God’s common name. It is really a substitute for the Biblical name Adonai (Lord or My Lord) which, though relatively rare, was one of the primary ways of directly addressing God in the Bible.
This name even comes up in the Shulhan Aruch of Yosef Karo, the definitive code of Jewish law. The Shulhan Aruch, of course, covers the entire gamut of Jewish law and ritual as it was practiced about 500 years ago when Rabbi Karo wrote it. It was meant to be the single text in which a Jew who was somewhat familiar with rabbinic texts could find the accepted practice with little more than a quick thumbing through the relevant section. Among the thousands of laws and customs is one dealing with dreams. It comes from a statement in the Talmud that one who has had a questionable dream should stand in front of the Kohanim when they recite the priestly blessing and say the following formula:
‘Master of the universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I don’t know what it was. Whether I dreamed about myself or whether others dreamed about me or whether I dreamed about others – if they are good dreams, strengthen them like the dreams of Joseph (whose dreams were all for the good in the end); if they need healing, heal them like the waters of Marah (a healing spring in the wilderness near Sinai) through Moshe…And just as you switched the curse of Balaam to a blessing, switch all the dreams about me to good’. And he should finish with the conclusion of the priestly blessing when the congregation responds ‘Amen’.
The Shulhan Aruch does nothing more than copy this prayer word for word and establish it as standard practice. But it changed what was probably an obscure formula that was known to a few scholars into a widely known custom that is practiced in Orthodox communities around the world. If one heads into an Orthodox synagogue and catches them reciting the priestly blessing, it is a good bet that a sharp eye can frequently catch at least one person reciting this formula.
Dreams are one of the more fascinating and mysterious elements of life. Almost anybody capable of serious reflective thinking has wondered about their dreams. They may think that the dreams are nothing more than a somewhat random rehashing of the past, but that sure doesn’t stop them from thinking there might be something to the dream. They can be just so vivid and dramatic that it takes great willpower to totally ignore them.
Associating dreams with spiritual powers such as God is as old as the very concept of spiritual powers. In almost all ancient religions and in many modern religions and spiritual paths, dreams are assumed to contain ‘higher’ messages. It is only in the past century or so that people have believed otherwise. But even with the modern theories on dreams, it is difficult to avoid attributing some importance to dreams. It is almost like we want to believe that a dream is not just a dream.
This prayer fit into the standard thinking of both Talmudic times, when it was composed, and the 16th century, when Yosef Karo incorporated it into normative Jewish practice. In all likelihood, even if people were not familiar with this formula, they devised their own way of praying to God or to some angel for a favorable interpretation of their dreams, or just for some insight into what the dream meant. They certainly made some attempt to figure out the hidden message. A dream was just too powerful a form of communication to ignore.
Let’s examine this little prayer. First off, it makes the sweeping statement that ‘I am Yours and my dreams are Yours’. While this statement is unsurprising in light of the times and the common religious attitude, it is rather strange introduction. Why is it necessary at all? Second, this ‘Master of the Universe’ title needs to be explained. What image does it really convey?
Master of the Universe – the One who controls all. God runs the entire show from the farthest reaches of outer space to the dream of an individual person. God can intervene at any time or place in any way imaginable. The universe is God’s private arena and God is the Master. Seeing God in this way is not so much an image as an attitude. It is an attitude that is saturated with a combination of reverence and desperation. It is the classic human response to things beyond their control that need to be a certain way and are not. We beg the powers that be to make it happen in any way possible. The Jewish version of this attitude is to address the Master of the Universe.
In a sense, this is the classic image of God – the Interventionist who can make things right with a flick of his divine finger. All other images are really just high level intellectual theories or simply ways of getting a grasp on reality. This is not the case with this image. This is the human being in need of divine assistance. Prayer is the method of communication and the Master of the Universe is the address. There is nothing more natural and more human than for person to cry out to his or her god in time of need. It is the eternal cry of a frail human being in need of the divine.
The opening line of this prayer, ‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I don’t know what it was’, speaks volumes. The supplicant is openly stating that something as private and as personal as a dream is in the hands of God. This alone should be no major surprise. It was standard thinking of the times. But the way the person says it, ‘I am yours and my dreams are Yours’, is nothing short of revelatory. ‘I am Yours’. To make that statement requires a highly spiritual attitude both about oneself and about God. I am a person with a mind, a body, a soul, a will, with goals and desires in life, with needs and expectations. Nevertheless, I am willing to put all that aside when faced with the reality of a dream that I cannot fathom. I am Yours.
You are the Master. You control my fate and my very involuntary personal thoughts to a degree that is both reassuring and disturbing. The thoughts and visions that enter my mind are not all my own. There are some that come from You. You can send these thoughts and visions into my mind at particularly relevant times. What message are You sending me? You can take the fate that is bound up in my dream and either strengthen it or heal it or switch it. I am begging You to cause my dream-fate to be for the good in whatever way that turns out to be. I don’t even need to know what my dream means – I just ask that whatever fate lies in store for me as a result of this dream, let it be for the good. You have the power to do this, and in asking this of You, I am acknowledging Your power as Master.
Perceiving the Image
This image, for better or for worse, has become the common image that Jews have of God. It contains elements of all the other images. It has a component of the intellectual images – it is a reasonable way of grasping the power that controls everything. It also shares the idea of God being ‘out there’ – the distant and all-powerful Guide. But it includes a very personal component, the image of God that is ‘in there’, right in the midst of the mind and the soul. It even touches a little of the physical/palpable type of image in that it almost seems like one could reach out and touch the Master. This is really the image of God in prayer, whether formal or informal. It is the everyday version of God, used for everyday problems in everyday situations. But it is also the absolute acknowledgment of God’s control over our lives. God is Master.
To perceive this image is no more difficult than to think of the last time you really needed something and put your faith/desperation in a higher power. It is simply a matter of recognizing one’s own perceived helplessness in a situation and the abrupt change in belief that comes about as a result. The most atheist of atheists becomes devout when he or she needs a break or a door opened. This image cuts through all religious boundaries. It really makes no difference what one’s religious background or orientation is when faced with the emotion of desperation. In the end, no matter how irrational, we all have to confront our own inadequacies in the face of fate. We may not like it and we may think that it is ridiculous, but we sometimes need to call on a higher power.
To call out to the Master of the Universe is to pray. It is speaking directly to God with no intellectual or spiritual complications, just the emotional connection between a human being and the Power that controls those things that are beyond personal control. It is a powerful bond, one that strikes to the very core of what it means to be human. For we have built into us, possibly from some combination of evolutionary development and our spiritual makeup, a need to call out in time of need. We want to know that there is something at the other end of the line that hears us and is ready to do something about it. It is as human a need as there is. We may be created in the image of God, but God is Master and we, for better or worse, are not.
This classic image is so easy and so commonplace that we frequently do not even recognize it as God. The question remains, however, is this really God, or is it just the emotion of desperation rising to the occasion?
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