In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we read:
וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא
“And Jacob encountered the place and lay down there, for the sun had set. And he took stones from those that were in that place and set them around his head, and he laid down in that place.”
Rashi (ibid.) notes that the verse says המקום, “the place”, without specifying the actual location. There is a grammatical device found both in Scripture and in Modern Hebrew called the ה’ הידיע, the heh hayedia, where the letter heh at the beginning of a word is similar to the definite article “the” in English. The implication is that you know what is being specified. In English, we only have the word “the” to indicate something that is known (and in Dutch, de and het), as opposed to German, where all nouns are capitalized.
Jacob encountered The Place.
Rashi explains that The Place is a place that has already been mentioned; it is Mount Moriah, as the verse states, “and he [Abraham] saw ‘the place’ from afar” (Ibid., 22:4).
Jacob falls asleep in this place, seemingly unaware of its significance. But five verses later, he awakens with a sense of fear and awe, and exclaims, “G-d is in this place—and I did not know!” (verse 16). Jacob’s experience is common to all of us as humans. Each one of us has a subconscious mind, a rich inner life, a tendency to get lost in thought, distracted. The wandering mind seems to be the natural state of being, while it takes effort to be conscious. The various forms of meditation address this reality. Although there is variation between meditative forms, the basic practice seems to be: focus, notice the mind wandering, gently bring it back to focus, and repeat.
The synagogue I attended had the phrase דע לפני מי אתה עומד, “know before Whom you stand” (Cf. Berachot 28b), engraved at the top of the Ark. Looking back, I realize that it was more than a beautiful application of gold leaf on wood. It was a meditative trigger to those who understood its meaning, meant to inspire the appropriate level of awe and reverence, both for the holiness of the synagogue and the One to Whom we were praying. We seem to need these signals to help us zero in on the call of the moment, because we are naturally preoccupied.
What transpired between Jacob laying down to sleep and awakening with newfound awareness? The vision of the sulam, the ladder stretching from Earth to heaven. Rashi explains that foot of the ladder began in Be’er Sheva, while its head hovered over Bet El (Luz), and that geographically, the center point between these two locations was Jerusalem. And it is Jerusalem that is hinted at by the phrase המקום, the Place. Note as well that one of G-d’s monikers is also המקום, “the Place”.
The awesome quality of this Place is due to the fact that both Abraham and Isaac prayed there. The reason why they prayed there is evident from Jacob’s vision of the ladder. As the Malbim notes on the verse, quoting the Talmud, this is “the place where heaven and earth touch”. It is a gateway for prayers to ascend to G-d, and a conduit through which G-d endows the world with sustenance. The dual purpose of the ladder in symbolized by the angels who both ascended and descended. Allow me to suggest that the ladder, with its bi-directional form, also represents the ebb and flow of spiritual consciousness. It comes, then vanishes, and our task is to tune into it when it comes.
“And Abraham called the name of the place Hashem yir’eh (G-d will appear), as he said, ‘upon this mountain will G-d appear’” (Genesis 22:14). “And he [Jacob] approached [Isaac] and kissed him, and [Isaac] smelled the scent of his clothing and blessed him, saying, see, the scent of my son is like the aroma of a field blessed by G-d” (Ibid., 27:27); “And he feared and said, ‘how awesome is this place! It is none other than the House of G-d and the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16). Each of these verses is given the same explanation in the midrash. We are taught in each instance that the three forefathers of the Jewish people saw a vision of the Temple built, destroyed and rebuilt for the future. The essence of these visions is that, while G-d desires that a Temple be built where He can cause his Presence to dwell on Earth, He does not abandon us even when the Temple is absent (Sifri, 252).
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had different ways to refer to the place where heaven and earth touch. Abraham referred to this spot as har, “mountain”; Isaac called it sadeh, “field” (Pesachim 88a); yet Jacob called it Bet E-lokim, “the House of G-d”. What is the deeper meaning of these terms?
A field is more accessible, and more likely to be inhabited and utilized, than a mountain. Abraham’s “mountain” is a type of relationship where G-d appears to be far off, while Isaac’s field suggests something more personal. But Jacob referred to The Place as a “house”. In this way, Jacob elevated the place above the concepts of “field” and “mountain”, because a house is even more a place of human habitation than a field. Thus, the spot upon which the Temple would be built was a “house”; the place of prayer—or prayer itself, irrespective of place—is where we are at home and in the right place, both Jews and Gentiles. At home with G-d. Therefore, the verse states, “for My House will be a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7; see Likkutei Moharan I:10:3).
May we be blessed to dwell at home with G-d through prayer, and to see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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