GATES & HOMES
Rabbi David Walk
Last week I wrote that the greatness of Ya'akov was his ability to adapt and grow throughout his life. He morphs from a home body into a public figure, and ascends from a character of the bottom (eikev, heel, Ya'akov) to a personality of the top (Yisrael). That doesn't mean that he never reverts to his original nature. After all he is still called Ya'akov, occasionally, after he's acquired his new persona and name. But, generally, he has become a more exalted individual. I like this in Ya'akov. This week we begin to see this transformation at the well, when he single handedly removes the massive rock from the mouth of the spring. This makeover is foreshadowed by the dream of the ladder. This great metaphor for the spiritual life is awesome. Life must be an ascent, albeit with plateaus and occasional downturns. Today we might visualize this concept with a graph of the stock prices of a successful company, with its ups and downs but a discernable movement towards the upside. The ladder is an amazing analogy, and worthy of our total intellectual immersion this week. But, been there, done that.
However, before I go on to my real topic this week. I want to share one quote I saw recently. Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel in one of his many attempts to help the rest of us understand how to talk to God wrote: Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God. Wow! In other words, when you take your three steps forward to say your Shmoneh Esreh, envision yourself advancing upward to become the ladder, with God hovering at its apex.
This week, though, I want to focus on another point. The verse informs us that right after the dream: Ya'akov 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 28:17).' Okay, that's cool. But what exactly are the things which Ya'akov is describing? What is 'this place', 'the house of God', and 'the gate of heaven'? As I'm sure you've surmised there are a plethora of answers to this complex question. The most famous approach is that of Rashi: [The Temple Mount] is not called as Abraham did a mountain, and not as Isaac did, a field, but as Jacob does who calls it the House of God. So, the first reference is to the Temple, and concerning the 'gate of heaven', Rashi adds: A place of prayer, where their prayers ascend to heaven (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 35). And its midrashic interpretation is that the Heavenly Temple is directed exactly towards the earthly Temple. [From Gen. Rabbah 69:7]. The idea that the places mentioned in the verse all refer to the Temple is expressed even more strongly by Rabbeinu Bechaye, who says that the verse contains the demonstrative pronoun zeh (this), three times. This indicated to Ya'akov that there would, eventually, be three Holy Temples on that exalted spot.
The Ma'or V'Shemesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, 1753-1823) alludes to a famous Midrash to explain the double terminology. There is a tradition that Ya'akov spent 20 years in yeshiva before departing Israel. After this experience, Ya'akov believed that the Divine presence could only be encountered in the rarified atmosphere of the study hall, but this dream is informing him that God can be encountered anywhere. Sanctity is universal. The world is the 'house of God', and 'the gates of heaven' to approach God, can be accessed anywhere. I like that idea, but not so much the Midrash. I think that Ya'akov may have assumed that God could only be encountered in the spiritual tents of his saintly parents, but God was displaying that the Shechina, really, permeates the entire cosmos.
But Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) brought this phraseology to an entirely new plane. In his characteristically poetic style, he explained: Our place of rest is solely in God. But surely God is above all reality…Therefore, Torah scholars who seek God are, for the most part, weary in spirit…They seek what is beyond their power…It is necessary to show the way to enter the banqueting hall – by way of the gate. The gate is the Godliness that reveals itself in the world, in all its beauty and splendor, in every spirit and soul, in every living creature, in every plant and flower, in every nation and people…in the ideas of every author, in the imaginations of every poet, in the thoughts of every thinker, in the feelings of anyone who feels…The supreme Godliness, that we yearn to reach, we can find it and delight in its love, and find repose and peace in its rest. (Tzima'on le-El Chai, Zar'onim, Orot, p. 120) Wow, what a breathtaking idea! The world itself, when viewed inspirationally, is the gate to God's house.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB"M flipped that idea and said: There are philosophies which understand Godliness as something transcendental, very distant…In contrast, there are other philosophies which regard God as being immanent, (our verse informs us that) this place represents an awesome contraction of God – 'the house of God.' God's immanence is in the world, 'contracted' into a house. On the other hand, this place is 'the gateway to heaven.' This very same house is the gateway to the transcendental God, beyond our grasp, 'in the heavens above.' Paradoxically we must see God in our world, marvel at the miracles of nature - the perception of immanence. This is the 'house of God.' At the same time, we perceive ourselves as standing only at the 'gate of heaven,' the transcendental, heavenly world (Shabbat Parashat Vayetze 5750 ).
Whether our world is the 'gate' (Rav Kook) or the 'house' (Rav Lichtenstein), we must understand Ya'akov's vision as informing us of the remarkable power God imbued us with to discern the holy and the sublime. Now, we must apply that talent.