Monday, September 01, 2008

What is Shechinah (part 2) - Makom and Kevod Hashem

In the last post we saw that God does not descend or for that matter go up, pass or change place in any way, but rather it is we who visualize such actions during our contemplations about God. God as the ultimate transcendental entity is not bound by time and place. In fact, the word “place” does not apply to Him at all but rather it is we who visualize God this way when we try to relate Him to our reality and existence. It is a hierarchical position rather than a physical place that is created by our minds as we try to apprehend God.

“In the verse, "Blessed be the glory of God (Kevod Hashem) from His place" (mimekomo) (Ezek. iii. 12), makom has this figurative meaning. The verse may be paraphrased "Blessed be the Lord according to His rank and the greatness of His portion in existence". Wherever makom is applied to God, it expresses the same idea, namely, the rank of His existence, there being nothing like or similar to that existence, as will be shown below.” (MN1:8)

When we say God “exists”, existence as it applies to Him is non-contingent. To us that type of existence is unimaginable. In our reality, there is nothing that exists completely independently and alone. It must be caused by something, be located somewhere and have limits, interacting with something else. “Existence” as applied to God, the only non-contingent entity by definition, is therefore equivocal and of a different rank, hierarchically ahead of everything considering that He is the cause of their existence. That is the subject of the Midrash (Breishit Rabah 68:10)

ויפגע במקום
ר' הונא 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,

הוי, הקדוש ברוך הוא מקומו של עולם, ואין עולמו מקומו.

אמר רבי יצחק

כתיב (דברים לג מעונה אלהי קדם,

אין אנו יודעים אם הקב"ה מעונו של עולמו ואם עולמו מעונו, מן מה דכתיב (תהלים צ

ה' מעון אתה

הוי. הקדוש ברוך הוא מעונו של עולמו, ואין עולמו מעונו.

אמר רבי אבא בר יודן:

לגבור, שהוא רוכב על הסוס וכליו משופעים אילך ואילך, הסוס טפילה לרוכב ואין הרוכב טפילה לסוס, שנאמר

כי תרכב על סוסך

The Midrash starts by saying that God is not placed within the world but rather the world is within Him. Space is a defined area within infinite non-space. Infinite non-space can only be conceived in our mind as it is immaterial, a negative concept. The Midrash follows and says that the world is not God’s dwelling but rather that God is the world’s dwelling. Rambam in MN 1:70 in discussing the word רוכב – to ride - as it applies to God explains -

The rider is better than the animal upon which he rides. The comparative is only used for the sake of convenience, for the rider is not of the same class as the animal upon which he rides. Furthermore, the rider moves the animal and leads it as he likes; it is as it were his instrument, which he uses according to his will; he is separate from it, apart from it, not connected with it. In like manner, the uppermost sphere, by the rotation of which everything moveable is set in motion, is moved by God, who is separate from the sphere, and is not a power in it. In Bereshit Raba we read that in commenting on the Divine words, "The eternal God is a refuge" (lit., a dwelling, Deut. xxxiii. 27), our Sages said, "He is the dwelling of His world, the world is not His dwelling." This explanation is then followed by the remark, "The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not subservient to the horse; this is meant by 'Thou wilt ride upon thy horses'" (Hab. iii. 8). Consider and learn how they described the relation of God to the sphere, asserting that the latter is His instrument, by means of which He rules the universe.”

Rambam understands that Rabbi Abba is explaining Rabbi Yitzchak’s comment. The metaphor of dwelling is an idea of ownership and control. Just like the rider, though the horse carries him, no one would doubt that the rider is in control, so too when we describe God’s relationship to the world as its dwelling, we are saying that He controls it. We sense Him through the results of that control, our existence, which we translate as Him being the dwelling the world resides within, not a matter of space but a hierarchical relationship - He controls it.

In discussing the word Nigash – came close – as in Shemot 24:2 –

ב וְנִגַּשׁ מֹשֶׁה לְבַדּוֹ אֶל-יְהוָה, וְהֵם לֹא יִגָּשׁוּ;

And Moshe alone shall come near unto the LORD; but they shall not come near, after explaining

that “coming near” in this context is nothing more than mental concentration, Rambam adds –

If, however, you wish to take the words "And Moshe shall draw near" to mean that he shall draw near a certain place in the mountain, whereon the Shechinah was, or, in the words of the Torah, "where the glory of God (Kevod Hashem) abode," you may do so provided you do not lose sight of the truth. There is no difference whether a person stand at the centre of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible, he is no further away from God in the one case, or nearer to Him in the other. Only those who obtain knowledge of Him approach Him; while those who remain ignorant of Him recede from Him.” (MN1:18)

Rambam here equates Shechinah with Kevod Hashem and tells us that both, in their “real” meaning, as opposed to the “acceptable” one, refer to intellectual knowledge of God. In other words, the Shechinah does not rest in a place nor does the Glory of God - the Kevod Hashem – but rather it is man who places them or alternatively God that they represent, in a physical place that is the result of His actions or command but does so only in his mind, intellectually. That is because man cannot fathom “existence” without it taking up space and locate it in a defined place. In discussing the rationale for building the Beit Hamikdash, Rambam explains –

Avraham selected the west of the mount as the place toward which he turned during his prayers for the Holy of Holies is in the west. This is the meaning of the saving of our Sages, "The Shechinah" (the Glory of God) is in the West" (B. T. Baba B 25a). They stated in the Talmud Yoma that our father Abraham fixed the direction toward which one should turn in prayer, I mean the Temple of the Holy of Holies. I believe that he did so because it was then a general rite to worship the sun as a deity. Undoubtedly all people turned then to the East [worshipping the Sun]. Abraham turned therefore on Mount Moriah to the West, that is, the site of the Sanctuary, and turned his back toward the sun.” (MN3:45)

When the rabbis say the Shechinah is in the West, they are telling us to focus our attention and visualization of God with our back to the sun. We do that to negate the idolatrous beliefs of our ancestors who conflated God with His tool – the sun. Prayer, to be more exact, the Amidah, the Shemona Esreh is a thrice-daily process of focusing and concentrating on our constant search for understanding and knowledge of HKBH. We visualize God during that process. Avraham wanted to make sure that we do not conflate God with His creation, the sun, a common error during his time. (Unfortunately, this is still extant nowadays, even in our communities, the sun having been replaced by other creatures/creations).

I hope that I have made it clear that God is not bound by space and time, thus when we say that God was somewhere, descended, went up or when we say that the prophet ascended, came close and so on, we are only describing an internal visualization rather than a physical fact. With this in mind, I will now try to deal with the experience at Sinai. I just want to end this post by pointing out the practical importance of understanding what Rambam teaches us here. We say the verse mentioned in MN1:8 above at least three times daily –

בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה, מִמְּקוֹמוֹ.

'Blessed be the glory of God from His place'(Yechezkel 3:12)

In this verse, we have the words “Kevod Hashem” and “Mimekomo” all discussed here. I always try to remind myself when saying the passuk that it is one of the central ideas of prayer.

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