Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Centering (Vaera)

CU Tilt up of potter centering clay on pottery wheel

The Torah Text

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion, God declares, “I am the Lord in the midst of the land!” (Exodus 8:18). In context, the intent is for Pharaoh to realize that God is present and powerful. But reading literally that God is located in the middle of the land piques the curiosity of the medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra.

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

וטעם כי אני ה’ בקרב הארץ. דרך משל כמנהג המלכים לעמוד באמצע מלכותם להיות קרוב אל הקצות. כאשר ברא השם לב האדם. שהוא מלך על כל הגוף באמצע. ורוח האדם באמצע הגוף. ככתוב ויוצר רוח אדם בקרבו

“This is a metaphor. It is the manner of kings to establish their residences in the middle of their kingdoms so as to be equidistant to their border. God similarly placed the heart, which is “king” over a human’s body, in the center of the human corporeal frame. A human’s spirit too is located in the center of the body, as it is written, “And God formed the human spirit in the midst of them” (Zecharyah 12:1).” (Translation Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

For Ibn Ezra, the center is key. He quickly compares God-in-the-world to a king-in-the-kingdom to a heart-in-the-body and a soul-in-the-human. For each level, the center is the source of vitality. The center is where one leads wisely.

One of the most striking understandings of “centering” that I have encountered comes from the writer and potter M.C. Richards, in her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.

“Because I am a potter, I take my image, centering, from the potter’s craft. A potter brings his clay into center on the potter’s wheel, and then he gives it whatever shape he wishes… Centering is my theme: how we may seek to bring the universe into a personal wholeness, and into act the rich life which moves so mysteriously and decisively in our bodies, manifesting in speech and gesture, materializing as force in the world the unifying energy of our perceptions.

“Paradox is at the center. The dynamic of life and death lies in every instant. On what a tender thread we walk. Centering is the image I use for the process of balance which will enable us to step along that thread feeling it not as a thread but a sphere. It will, it is hoped, help us to walk through extremes with an incorruptible instinct for wholeness…”

When we talk about “centering” ourselves, we think of balance, calm, and preparedness. We connect with our core values and passions. We learn to integrate all of our swirling experiences and aptitudes – both good and bad, joyous and painful, productive and harmful – into a coherent whole. 

  • When have you felt “centered?”
  • What relationship do you see between leadership and being in the center?
  • What does it mean to be whole?
  • Have you ever felt that “incorruptible instinct for wholeness?” 
  • How do you relate to the idea that the heart is the king/queen over your body?
  • What, if anything, do these musings on the center have to do with the “political center?”

The prophet Isaiah once declared, “We are the clay, and You are the Potter; we are all the work of Your hands” (64:7). May this Shabbat bring opportunities to explore the wild margins of our lives, the divine center of our being, and the restful peace of knowing we are lovingly-formed creations.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.