When Jacob, after leaving his family in Be’er Sheva, reaches Mount Moriah, the Torah states, “And he lighted [=came] upon the place, and tarried there all night” (Genesis 28:11). Jacob comes to a physical place, where he will make his bed for the night, and will see a ladder that reaches the heavens and on which God is standing. However, in the sages’ language, “the place” (hamakom) is also one of God’s names. The following midrash deals with this double meaning.
“It is written, ‘And he came upon the place.’ Rabbi Houna, citing Rabbi Idi, said: Why is God called The Place? Because his place contains the entire world and because his place is not contained in the world. Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Halfata, said: We do not know whether God’s place contains the world or whether his place is contained in the world. However, it is written, ‘Behold, there is a place by me’ [Exodus 33:21]. Thus we can understand from that verse that God’s place contains the world and that his place is not contained in the world.
“Rabbi Isaac said: It is written, ‘The eternal God is a dwelling-place’ [Deuteronomy 33:27]. We do not know whether God’s dwelling-place contains the world or whether his dwelling-place is contained in the world. However, it is written, ‘Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place’ [Psalms 90:1]. In other words, God’s dwelling-place contains the world and his place is not contained in the world.
“Rabbi Abba, son of Yuden, said: God is like a hero who is mounted on a horse and whose garments flow on either side of his saddle. The horse is inferior to the hero; the hero is not inferior to the horse. For it is written, ‘that thou dost ride upon thy horses, upon thy chariots [or, garments] of victory [literally, salvation]’ [Habakkuk 3:8]’” (Bereisheet Rabba 68:9).
Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Idi make the reader aware of what appears to be an abstract philosophical Gordian knot, a difficult philosophical question: Is God a part of the world or is the world contained in him? In effect, however, their debate is not as abstract as one might initially perceive, and it must be discussed in light of its conclusion.
In Chapter 3 of the Book of Habakkuk, the prophet describes how God will arrive at the time of the Redemption. Inter alia, Habakkuk says, “that thou dost ride upon thy horses, upon thy chariots [or, garments] of salvation.” God is depicted here as a hero on a horse, whose garments will redeem his nation. Rabbi Abba detects what seems to be a paradox in this verse: Will Israel be redeemed by the garments or by God, who is the rider wearing those garments?
The hero is mounted on the horse, says Rabbi Abba, however, the rider’s garments flow on either side of the saddle and cover the horse. This is proof that, although the horse bears the hero, the animal is inferior to the hero: The hero and his garments cover the horse physically and substantively, and, in effect, if it were not for the hero, the horse would not be on the battlefield at all.
The association between “salvation” and the garments is a metonymy: God is the hero who will bring salvation, while the horse and garments are inferior to the hero.
This set of images should be recalled as one rereads the position of Rabbi Yossi, who presents two homiletic options as parallel opportunities; based on the language of the verses in Genesis, it is impossible to decide which alternative should be chosen: “We do not know whether God’s place contains the world or whether his place is contained in the world.” He reveals himself in a physical place, but is he dependent on that physical place – or is the physical place dependent on God?
Does God, the rider on the horse, reveal himself only because of the place that bears him? Alternatively, is the place dependent on God, who reveals himself there? And can it be said that the physical place could not exist without God – just as the horse is dependent on his rider?
These two homiletic possibilities are parallel interpretations, and the phrasing does not enable us to decide which is correct. To determine that, Rabbi Yossi juxtaposes with the verse from Genesis a verse from this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35): “However, it is written, ‘Behold, there is a place by me’ [Exodus 33:21]. We can therefore understand from that verse that God’s place contains the world and that his place is not contained in the world.”
When, in this week’s reading, Moses asks God, “Show me, I pray thee, thy glory” (Exod. 33:18), God presents him with the conditions under which Moses can see God: “And the Lord said: ‘Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon the rock. And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand until I have passed by. And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back; but my face shall not be seen’” (Exod. 33:21-23).
The meaning emerging from a literal reading of these verses is that there is a special place from which Moses will be able to see God’s back. In his interpretation, however, Rabbi Yossi explains the term “by me” in “Behold, there is a place by me,” as a confession made in first person: The place in which I will reveal myself is found “by me” or “with me” – that is, it is dependent on me and I am not dependent on it.
Despite the abstract phrasing, the question is a homiletic one about the verses in Genesis and Exodus depicting God’s revelation to human eyes. God is the rider mounted on the horse, and the physical place in which he stands is the world. So who or what is inferior? Is the world a permanent place, whereby God can either be or not be in that world? Is God attached to the world, or, alternately, is the world attached to – that is, inferior to – God?
Rabbi Yossi settles this question categorically: The world is attached to – inferior to – God. The long garments worn by the rider show that the horse is inferior to the rider, while the redemption, alluded to by those garments, is only a metonymy of the redemption God-the-hero will bring.
Similarly, when he reveals himself to Moses, God places his prophet in a cleft in the rock: The rider’s long garments, draped on either side of the saddle, cover the physical place where God reveals himself, proving that the cleft in the rock is inferior to God and that it is the place “by me” or “with me.” That place is dependent on God, and God is not dependent on it.
In the Torah, it must be pointed out, this question is of no concern whatsoever. God reveals himself in the physical world, and this fact undermines neither God’s divinity nor the world’s “earthliness” or ordinariness.
The motivation to create this homily is explicitly presented in the opening of the midrash – in the words of Rabbi Idi: “Why is God called The Place?” The sages have no trouble accepting the fact that this is one of God’s names. The reason for their acceptance is clear and is presented by Ephraim Auerbach in his book “The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs.” God is called The Place because he reveals himself in The Place – that is, in the Temple in Jerusalem. This interpretation is supported by Rabbi Isaac, who replaces the word “place” with “dwelling-place.”
We can find similar “temple” words in many of the early writings of the sages. In later generations, however, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the meaning of the term “The Place” was uprooted from its context, and this intuitive, theological term became problematic.
A number of passages in the Torah depict God’s self-revelation in a physical place. However, if one of God’s names refers to his place and if that place is destroyed, what then is God’s fate? This is the point from which Rabbi Idi departs to his conclusion: “Because his place contains the world and because his place is not contained in the world” – or, to use Rabbi Abba’s terminology, God’s place is inferior to God. If God wishes, he can destroy his place and reveal himself somewhere else.