Between the Lines—Va-yetzei

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 68:9

ויפגע במקום ר״ה בשם ר׳ אמי אמר מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב״ה וקוראין אותו מקום שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו מן מה דכתיב (שמות לג) הנה מקום אתי

א״ר אבא בר יודן לגבור שהוא רוכב על הסוס וכליו משופעים אילך ואילך הסוס טפילה לרוכב ואין הרוכב טפילה לסוס

"[Jacob] came upon the Place . . . " (Gen. 28:11). R. Huna said in R. Ammi's name: Why do we give a changed name to the Blessed Holy One as 'the Place'? Because He is the Place of the world, but the world is not His place, as it is written, "Behold, there is a place near Me" (Exod. 33:21). . . R. Abba bar Yudan said: [God can be compared to] a warrior riding a horse, his robes flowing over on both sides; the horse is subsidiary to the rider, but the rider is not subsidiary to the horse.

Few of us today would claim to have had epiphanies like those of Jacob and Moses as referenced in this midrash. At the same time, our God-language (the names for God that we have inherited, especially from biblical and rabbinic literature) reflects experiences we all have had in which our sense of reality has suddenly and irrevocably shifted. The midrash above seeks to express that insight through a comparison of human encounters with the divine that inform the rabbinic understanding of how God relates to the world.

The midrash opens with a playful citation from the second verse of this week's Torah portion, in which Jacob arrives at an unnamed location. After having a vision within a dream of an angel-transporting ladder extending from the ground to the heavens, Jacob awakes and declares, "Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Gen. 28:16). The repetition throughout this passage of the term for place (ha-makom) strongly influences the early rabbis in choosing to adopt it as a euphemism for the ever-present God. R. Ammi claims, therefore, that Jacob discovers God not within "that place," but as "that Place," the totality of this world.

This theological assertion that God encompasses all of existence presents a problem for R. Ammi, who must explain that God nonetheless transcends as well as fills our reality. In order to establish that God dwells within and beyond the created world, R. Ammi cleverly selects a verse in which the term ha-makom figures differently in another revelation scene. When Moses asks to see God's Presence (Exod. 33:18), God provides "a place" nearby as a safe location from which he may see God's back only. That partial viewing imparts the sense of an immediate yet incomplete grasp of God's being in this world.

One of the common challenges to this theology is the question of free will, the question of human destiny independent of fate. In an interesting conclusion to this discussion, R. Abba bar Yudan chooses to illustrate his response to this problem through a metaphor in order to convey his conception of God's omnipresence existing along with human free will. Just as a warrior rides on top of his horse with partial control over its gait, so too God travels with and directs us as we move about the world without determining for us how we act.

May we find God's Presence similarly within and around ourselves as we continue Jacob's journey through the world, seeking to find places and moments of clarity.