Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, November 23, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            When I was growing up (a process that I'm not sure is yet complete), the two most important annual events in my home were the Pesach Seder and the Thanksgiving meal.  And one of my memories of those Turkey day fetes, along with the Detroit Lions football game, was the Perry Como holiday special.  Of course, today we'd never have watched this variety show, because the NFL has totally consumed the day.  Anyway the last scene of this program was the setting up of a family feast, and they would always sing There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays.  And some of the lyrics still ring true:  For no matter how far away you roam -When you long for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, for the holidays - you can't beat home, sweet home.  That sort of corny sentiment still resonates.  And there's perhaps no better time to discuss this issue of the relative merit of different locations than this week's Torah reading.

            This week we read of Ya'akov's flight from home ahead of his brother, Esav's, fratricidal intentions.    The opening verse of our reading mentions both our Patriarch's departure from Be'er Sheva and his destination of the ancestral home in Haran.  Both are stated because he was not only fleeing his brother but also seeking a wife of the proper background.  On the first night of this journey he has, perhaps, the most famous dream in all literature.  The verse states:  And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and angels of God were descending and ascending upon it. And behold, God was standing over him, and said, "I am the Lord, God of Abraham your father, and God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed…And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know." And he was frightened, and he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:12-13, 15-16)."  It's a bit ironic but even though he makes a big deal about how remarkable his lodging is, we're not sure where he actually dreamed the dream he dreamed.  However, we know that the location is important because the word makom (place) appears six times in these few verses.  Some commentaries claim that he was on the Temple Mount, while other authorities opt for the town of Beit El (or Bethel) a bit further north, near where my daughter lives.  But I'm not concerned with that debate.

            What interests me is what Ya'akov means by this locale being both the house of God and the gate of heaven.  Rashi states that the house of God must mean the Temple Mount.  The Ramban suggest that there are two different locations being described.  I'll conveniently ignore him.  The idea of the dwelling place of God seems to imply that God in some way can be found there.  Now if we really believe in that philosophic concept that all of our children have sung about, namely that God is here and God is there and God is truly everywhere, then having a discrete domicile for our Deity must be explained.  To evade the question allow me to state that we may just be stating that there is somehow a greater concentration of Godliness in that place.  This is what we mean by saying that a place or thing is holy.  There is more Godliness or access to God in that location or item.  Remember we Jews believe in three varieties of holiness based on the oft quoted verse:  Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts, Who fills the cosmos with His presence (Isaiah 6:3).  They are the sanctity of time, place and people.  It may be that Avraham invented the holiness of people, Yistchak initiated the sanctity of time, and, now, in our verse Ya'akov is creating that special status for places.   

            Rashi also comments on the other description of the locality as a gateway to heaven:  A place of prayer, where their prayers ascend to heaven. And its midrashic interpretation is that the Heavenly Temple is directed exactly towards the earthly Temple (verse 16).  So, now we have a conundrum.  Is this amazing place the location where God can be found and encountered because God is imminent, or is it the portal through which our prayers or offerings can be beamed up to Heaven, because God is transcendent?  Well, I think both.  But which concept predominates?  I think that depends on a very important condition.  That condition is the difference between a house and a home.  What turns a physical building into the spiritual focus of our lives?  Well, that is answered in the Mishneh:  Rebbe Yehuda says that an extra wife must be prepared for the High Priest on Yom Kippur because the Torah demands that he must say a confession which is for himself and his house, and his house means his wife (Yoma 1:1).  In other words having a loving partner in the house turns it into a home.  I think that teaches us that the Temple Mount is only the Home of our Creator when there are Jews there worshipping to the glory of God.  When there are no adoring throngs assembling to experience the Divine Presence, there really isn't any Divine Presence there.  Under those circumstances, the Temple Mount becomes the launching pad for our prayers and is the gateway for access to Heaven, but it isn't the sanctuary which somehow houses God which the verses in Exodus talk about (Exodus 25:8).

            This is equally true about our houses.  These lodgings, apartments, domiciles only become hearth and home when shared by loving couples.  Only when there's anticipation of a caring reception is there a concept of I've got to get home.  Otherwise, that place is only shelter and dormitory.  This week has been special to me, because I didn't just get married, I've acquired a home.  So, now I've got an awesome place which I look forward to being at, and something very wonderful to be thankful for, and can identify with another idea:  There's no place like home.         

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