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Parashat Vayeitzei

December 3, 2014

Rabbi Len Levin

“Indeed, God is in this place!”

This week, the Torah tells of the first of two climactic encounters that the Patriarch Jacob experienced, both of them occurring at transitional points of his outward career and inner growth. This week we read of Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. The place — Beth El (House of God) — later became (not coincidentally) one of the major cultic centers of the Israelite kingdom.

The rabbis were so impressed by the image of the ladder connecting earth and heaven that in a rather creative interpretation they conflated Jerusalem and Beth El, understanding them to represent one central connecting point, the umbilicus or navel of the earth, the point from which the creation of the world proceeded. They declared the location of the Jerusalem temple to be Even Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, for on it the world was founded. This idea was later taken over by Islam, and the Foundation Stone became the Rock — made famous by the Dome of the Rock that was built over it. (For an ecumenical interpretation of this landmark, see the historical novel The Rock by the liberal Iraqi author Kanan Makiya.)

Every worshipper at a sacred place – be it Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Delhi, or AJR – feels that God’s presence is uniquely present at that place. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, referred to this as a universal experience of God’s centeredness at the worshipper’s location, where earth and heaven are felt to meet, so that prayers at that spot ascend directly to heaven. Eliade cited the story of Jacob’s Ladder as an archetype of this universal human propensity.

At a deep level of the psyche, the experience of God’s immediate presence at this location is felt to be one part of a twofold truth, the other part being God’s omnipresence, God’s being everywhere. In Heavenly Torah, Heschel frames this issue in terms of a debate between two rabbis of the second century. Rabbi Akiva says the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) has a preferred location; Rabbi Ishmael says theShekhinah is everywhere. In the Renaissance, the Christian mystic Nicholas of Cusa expressed this idea in a maxim: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose circumference is nowhere, and whose center is everywhere.” The Renaissance was also the age of the idea of the “perennial philosophy,” that in all the great debates of ideas in history, there is truth to be found in every position.

Today, the fabled central location of God’s presence is the epicenter of deadly conflicts that proceed from those who deny the all-embracing character of God’s love and providence. Those who would limit God’s concern to just one of the historical religion and its adherents must forever be at war until all dissenters be subdued or annihilated. Those who would declare Judaism to be an outdated version of God’s revelation will never acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jews’ return to their land, and will forever be at war to undo it.

By the same token, those Jews who deny the legitimate share of resident non-Jews in that same land will have a hard time of squaring their position with the Jewish tradition. The Torah says, “Love the stranger,” and the prophets looked forward to a time when Torah would come out of Zion and the nations would beat their swords into ploughshares, when nation would not lift up sword against nation and people would learn war no more. The world seems further away than ever now from that consummation, but it must never be let go of as the final goal toward which our history must continue to strive.

In Jacob’s dream, God repeated the promise of Abraham, “All the nations of the world will be blessed in you.” Jacob experienced this place as the center of the earth, where earth and heaven meet. Still, he knew the blessing was not for him alone, but for all humanity. The particular and the universal were inextricably intertwined at that moment, as they have been throughout Jewish history. Jerusalem is a Jewish sanctity but also a universal sanctity, the stone from which the world was created. The Bible is a creation of the Jewish people and a revelation to all humanity.

The opening of The Jewish Catalog tells us: Of all nations, Israel was holiest, and the holiest man in in Israel was the high priest. Similarly, of all places, Jerusalem was holiest, and within Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Of all days, Yom Kippur was the holiest, and of all words, the name of God.

On Yom Kippur the holiest man would go to the holiest place and utter the name of God. Thus all the sanctities were united.

And yet — every place where one calls out to God is the Holy of Holies. Every person who dedicates herself to the sacred is a High Priest. Every day that one turns to God is a Day of Atonement. And every word spoken in sincerity is the Name of God.

“In every place where I cause My name to be proclaimed, I will come to you and bless you.” (Ex. 20:21).
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.