A Bet

When Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was a small child, his mother once took him to meet Reb Yisrael, the Maggid of Kosnitz. As they stood in line with the Maggid’s Hasidim, each waiting to see the holy rebbe, one of the disciples called to the young Yitzchak Meir.

“Your mother tells us that you are quite bright and worthy of meeting our holy Maggid. But I am not so sure. So I will make a bet with you. I will give you a gulden if you can tell me where God lives!”

The Hasidim laughed at their fellow’s jest. When their laughter faded, Yitzchak Meir looked up at the man and said, And I will give you two gulden if you can tell me where God does not live!”

The Hasidim laughed even louder, and Yitzchak Meir and his mother were moved to the front of the line.


At the heart of Hasidic teaching is the realization that God is the source and substance of all reality. God is Ayn Sof, the Unbounded One. There is nothing that is not God, for if there were, then God would be limited and therefore no longer God.

This is a difficult idea for many people to grasp. We are so used to thinking in dualistic terms (subject and object, self and other) that we naturally think of God as the Absolute Other. But if this were so, we would be equal to God, being God’s Absolute Other. If we are to understand what Yitzchak Meir knew even as a child, we need a new metaphor for God. Let me suggest the following:

A common tool in psychology is the concept of figure and ground, often represented by a graphic that can appear either as a goblet or as the profiles of two young women facing each other. Which image you see depends on where you place your attention. The seen image is called figure; the unseen is called ground. It is common to imagine that God is ground and creation is figure. But this is not what Yitzchak Meir knew. Both figure and ground are manifestations of yet a third unnamed and unknowable reality: the image itself when no one is looking at it. What is the IT that contains both the goblet and the young women? It is not other than them, nor is it reducible to them either singly or together. IT is that which cannot be seen, but which is absolutely necessary if anything is to see or be seen. IT is God, the unnamable reality. God is figure and ground and That Which Embraces Them Both.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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