From Parashat Vayetze arises the source for the well-known title for God Ha-Makom (“The Place”). This title is traditionally used in the Haggadah Shela-Pesah and is sometimes translated into English as “the Omnipresent.” But how does the Hebrew phrase “the place” give rise to the concept of omnipresence?
The popular teachings of the Kabbalah and Hasidism have postulated that HaMakom is a veiled reference to Panentheism and the central Lurianic doctrine known as “tzimtzum” (i.e. that God somehow made a “void” in the midst of himself into which he placed the created universe). This idea, of course, is completely without basis within the teachings of Hazal and its explanation entails the setting aside of several tenets of Judaism and principles of pure monotheism. This misunderstanding of the meaning of HaMakom is based on a passage from the Midrash Rabbah that says “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (Bereshit Rabbah 68,10). But does this passage really support a panentheistic view of God and creation?
On the surface, it really does seem to. However, there are many places where the exponents of the Kabbalah take passages of the Torah, Na”Kh, talmud, and midrashim out of context and re-interpret them to their own ends. One example is that of Iyov 31:2 which refers to “a portion of God above.” The kabbalists (and subsequently the leaders of Hasidism) made the bold claim that this “portion of God” being referred to is the soul which is actually composed of God Himself (and specifically the highest level of the soul known as yehidah – taken from yet another passage of the midrash which lists five names of the soul in the Tanakh). However, when the passage is looked at in context, we see that it has absolutely nothing to do with the human soul. The passage in its context reads:
בְּרִית כָּרַתִּי לְעֵינָי וּמָה אֶתְבּוֹנֵן עַל בְּתוּלָה. וּמֶה חֵלֶק אֱלוֹהַּ מִמָּעַל וְנַחֲלַת שַׁדַּי מִמְּרֹמִים? הֲלֹא אֵיד לְעַוָּל וְנֵכֶר לְפֹעֲלֵי אָוֶן? הֲלֹא–הוּא יִרְאֶה דְרָכָי וְכָל צְעָדַי יִסְפּוֹר?
“I have made a covenant with my eyes, how can I then look upon a virgin? And what will be my portion of God above, the inheritance of the Almighty from on high? Is it not misfortune to the unjust and disaster to the doers of iniquity? Does He not see my ways and count all of my steps?” (Iyov 31:1-4)
This passage has nothing to do with souls, pieces of God, or the Kabbalah. Rather, it is Iyov’s acknowledgment of God’s punishment of the wicked, a punishment which he would “inherit” if he should act wickedly in his life.
The contention that this passage from the Midrash Rabbah somehow supports a panentheistic view of God is similarly contrived, as we will see. However, upon a closer look at the entire passage, it becomes clear what the intention of Hazal was when they constructed this instructive allegory.
BERESHIT RABBAH 68:10 –
“And [Ya`akov] reached the place – Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Ammi, For what reason do we use a kinnui for the name of the Holy One Blessed is He, calling him Makom [“Place”]? Because while He is the place of the world, the world is not His place – from what is written (Shemot 32) ‘Behold, [there is] a place with Me…’ So, the Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.’
Rabbi Yitzhak said, ‘It is written (Devarim 32) – The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.[i] We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world or if His world is His dwelling-place. [The matter is clarified] from what is written (Tehillim 90), ‘Adhonoy, You are a dwelling-place…’ So, The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world and His world is not His dwelling-place.’
Rav Abba bar Yudan said, ‘[This may be compared] to a soldier who is riding on a horse and his weaponry draped on either side. The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not secondary to the horse, as it says (Havakuk 3), ‘For you ride upon Your horses.'”
[i] “Ma`onah Elohei Kedem – מענה אלהי קדם” can apparently be understood as either “A dwelling-place [for] the Eternal God” or “The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.” And the word translated “dwelling-place” does not just indicate a place to exist, but a “refuge” or “abode.”
We can already see that the simplistic quotation of the phrase “He is the place of the world” does not carry with it the panentheistic meaning that has been attributed to it. In fact, such a reading should be clearly undermined by the second part of the statement, which says, “…the world is not his place” since Panentheism maintains the very real immanence of God throughout the entire world.
The commentaries below the text are divided with one giving the standard kabbalistic notions and the other, the Matanot Kehunah, gives a simpler approach, even relating a portion of it to the version found in the Talmud Yerushalmi.
MATANOT KEHUNAH – BERESHIT RABBAH 68:10 –
“The girsa in the Yalkut reads: ‘…and His world is not His place. Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta said: We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world or if the world is His place.’ From what is written etc. – That is to say, from what is written ‘Behold, there is a dwelling-place with Me’ it is inferred that the place [being referred to] is located ‘with Him’ and not that He is in the place [referred to]. Who is riding etc. – It is a remez that hollow spaces of the world and everything that they contain are secondary to Him. And in the Yerushalmi it reads: ‘The horse does not whip the soldier, rather the soldier whips the horse.’ “
It is abundantly clear that this midrashic passage was meant to communicate something other than Panentheism and perhaps even its opposite, i.e. that we should not think that the name HaMakom indicates that HaShem is within physical space (which is not possible because, as the Rambam clearly writes אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף), but rather that everything is secondary to him and that he is metaphrically our dwelling-place of refuge. We turn to God in times of difficulty because the entire world is subject to him and we turn to him in times of happiness and blessing for the same reason. There are many passukim in the Tanakh that communicate this same idea:
- Tehillim 91:1-4
- Tehillim 46:1-12
- Tehillim 18:1-7
- Devarim 33:27
- Mishlei 14:26
- Mishlei 18:10
- Yesha`yahu 25:1-4
- Yerimiyahu 16:19
- and others…
Like a horse is ridden and steered by its rider, HaShem “rides” on the world in complete domination of it, steering it and whipping it in direction of his will. He does not dwell within the world, being somehow contained in it, but rather the world exists within space and is limited by the will of HaShem. If we think about it, all the names we use for God – both of Biblical and Rabbinic origin – are meant to communicate the ultimate position, power, and authority of HaShem. None of them refer to where he supposedly is located since “location” – like color, smell, or body parts – simply have no relevance to him, the Supreme Master of everything.
This message is as pertinent today as it was in the ancient world. No matter how advanced we get as a species, we still cannot escape the primitive pitfalls of attributing physical limitations or properties to the One Transcendent Creator of the universe, may he be blessed.
During Pesah we think of Him as HaMakom – the master of the world who bent all the forces of nature to our benefit and programmed the miracles of the exodus into the world from the six days of creation.
UPDATE: There entire concept of God occupying physical space, or having any category of spatial reference apply to him was completely rejected by pure Judaic monotheism. Most traditional commentators on the Humash at Bereshit 28:11 completely ignore the reference to ha-makom as explained by the midrashic passage noted above. Instead, the usual interpretation presents the words vayifga ba-makom as a reference to something other than a name of God. I have presented the commentary of each one below in a very abbreviated fashion to illustrate this point.
- Rav Saadia Gaon understands vayifga ba-makom as a reference to that particular location, not God.
- Rashi understands ba-makom as referring to an actual place and not as a name for God. He interprets vayifga, like the Midrash, as a veiled reference to Yaakov praying and thereby instituting Arvit, the evening prayer. Makom is viewed here as referring to God (i.e. he approached God in prayer), but it is not explained according to Panentheism.
- The Baal HaTurim sees the three mentions of the word makom as a hint (remez) pointing toward the three pilgrimage festivals to be instituted later on that specific location (i.e. Mount Moriah).
- Sforno breaks apart vayifga ba-makom into two phrases: vayifga, which indicates that Yaakov did not intend to necessarily end up there, and ba-makom which supposedly alludes to rest stops that were commonly on the roads between cities in ancient times.
- Daat Zekenim views the language vayifga ba-makom as a reference to the evening prayer, much like Rashi.
- Rashbam simply states that vayifga ba-makom means that Yaakov happened to reach a location outside the city of Loz.
- The Kli Yakar cites various sayings of Hazal to the effect that vayifga ba-makom refers to Yaakov reaching a special place which would in the future become the site of the Beit HaMikdash and the source of blessing for the entire world. He further explained that vayifga ba-makom is a certain reference to prayer and the institution of Arvit.
- The Ohr HaHayim explicitly says that the peshuto shel-mikra is that vayifga ba-makom refers to a certain place for Yaakov to dwell. He then proceeds to explain that the equation of the makom mentioned in the verse with Mount Moriah does not present a contradiction.
None of these explain “Makom” as a special name of God indicating his immanence in all of creation. Those that seem to uphold the reading of “Makom” as a reference to God, do so only in an ancillary sense with regard to their reading of vayifga ba-makom as an indication of prayer by Yaakov. It can only be assumed that they understood “Makom” as properly explained by the Midrash Rabbah: an indicator of God’s supreme rule in every location, and not as an allusion to Panentheism.
In fact, the Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects such an interpretation of vayifga ba-makom and instructs the reader to ignore midrashic methods of expounding Bereshit 28:11. After giving the peshat of the verse he says,
“…we do not find anywhere in the Scripture that HaShem is called ‘Makom,’ and do not pay any attention to derash. [For if this were so, then the phrase in Megillat Esther 4:14] ‘mi-makom aher – from another place’ [would be problematic]. But [this reference, i.e. in the Megillah] has nothing to do with HaShem.”
Lastly, Rav Saadia Gaon, in a passage from his famous “Beliefs and Opinions” (HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot, I:11) says the following:
“And I say concerning the concept of place* (ha-makom) that it cannot be that the Creator needs a place that he might be in it, and this is so for many reasons. First, because he is the Creator of all place and also because he alone is The Pre-Existent One (ha-kadmon) even before there existed any place, and his creation of place did not affect any change in him. And further because that which needs a place is the body* that fills every [space] that meets it and comes into contact with it, and it will be that each one of these things in contact with one another is a place for the other – and such cannot be so for the Creator. And that which is said by the prophets that he is ‘in heaven’ [is not literal], but is a way of communicating greatness and exaltedness because from our perspective the heaven are higher than anything else known to us, just as it is explained by Scripture, ‘For God is in heaven and you are upon the earth’ (Kohelet 5:1), and “for the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain you’ (I Melakhim 8:27). And this was also the meaning of their statements to the effect that he dwells in the Beit HaMikdash, ‘and I will dwell among the children of Israel’ (Shemot 28:45), and ‘HaShem dwells in Tzion’ (Yoel 4:21) – all of this is to confer honor upon that place and upon that nation. And in addition to this, he already displayed there his created brightness/light, which we mentioned above is referred to as shekhinah and kavod.”
May we all diligently negate all physical reference or category from the one transcendent blessed God – to whom neither space, time, motion, or physical qualities whatsoever have any relevance. Amen, selah.