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Parashat Vayetze

November 13, 2007

Mountain, Field and House
By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

“How awesome is this place! This is naught but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven . . .” (Gen 28:17

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s unexpected and numinous encounter with God, en route from his home to the unknown land of his ancestors ‘ a meeting that was to be both a turning point in his own life, and a paradigm for future generations. “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). In several Talmudic passages, the Sages discuss this passage in relation to events in the lives of the other two patriarchs. One (Berakhot 26b) portrays the fathers introducing each of the three daily prayers. (See my discussion at: http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com/, under the heading: Hayyei Sarah). Another (Pesahim 88a) speaks of the three patriarchs relating to God in different kinds of locii:

Rabbi Eleazar said: What is meant by the verse, “And many nations will come andsay: Come, let us go up to the mountainof God, to the House of the God of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:3)? Why do they not say, “the God of Abraham and Yitzhak”? Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain, as is written “on the mount of the Lord shall He be seen” (Gen 22:14). Not like Isaac, who called it a field, as is said, “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Gen 24:63). Rather, like Jacob, who called it a house,as is written, “And he called the name of that place Beth-El [the House of God]” (Gen 28:19).

At first reading, this passage is rather baffling. However, it seems to me that it may be read as a typology of different kinds of religious experience. “Mountain” conjures up images of transcendence: a high, lofty, mysterious place, remote from the centers of human civilization, midway between heaven and earth – a fitting place to meet the God who is “Wholly Other,” utterly beyond the ken of human comprehension. To know God, man must first and foremost ascend beyond himself, to the rarefied air of the mountain tops. Such mountain symbolism is rife in other traditions, from ancient Greece to Tibetan monasticism, through post-Christian thinkers like Nietzsche or Gurdjieff-not to mention the image of Moses on Sinai. This is the quintessence of the primal, foundational experience of Abraham: the high and lofty, unique God who is Creator of All, “the master of the palace.” Such an approach is diametrically opposed to the pagan approach of Terah and his world, who saw numerous divine forces-generally speaking, nature gods-at play within the familiar, everyday world.

By contrast, the field in which Yitzhak walked to commune with God suggests God’s immanence, His omnipresence. He “fills all worlds”; He is “the Life of Life,” found in in every flower and every blade of grass, if one but knows how to look. This aspect seems particularly accessible in open, natural settings, far from the noise and tumult of human society. Yitzhak’s experience is a mystical one, of the type known as “panentheism” – i.e., of Nature identified as being within, and part of God, while He is not encompassed by nature, but transcends it: “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (Genesis Rabbah 68.9). This somewhat circuitous, dialectical formulation is important so as to distinguish the Judaic concept of immanence from the pantheism so beloved of 19th century romantics, which veers dangerously close to paganism.

What is the significance of the “house,” the name that Jacob associated with calling upon God? “House” suggests a human habitation, a space that is well-defined, set aside for a specific purpose. Not like a mountain, which awakens feelings of awe, suggesting the Infinite; nor a field, open in every direction, as far as the eye can see; but something more modest, human, limited, homey (“heimish”). Like the home of a particular family, so, too, is the “house” of God-the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue, the Study House-somehow God’s “place” in this world (notwithstanding that this is an inherently paradoxical concept, as the Rabbis were well aware). Jacob’s “house” was a house of prayer for all:not only for unique personalities possessing extraordinary religious sensibilities, but also for amkha-for ordinary folk, “together, all the tribes of Israel.” This is perhaps the reason why our gemara gave preference to the “house” of Jacob, rather than to the high mountain of Abraham, or the immanent Presence felt in the field by Yitzhak.

Another, related interpretation also seems plausible. The “house”-well-defined, and a very human sort of habitation-may be seen as symbol for the halakhah itself. “After the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be He has naught in His world but the four ells of halakhah.” The law, with its categories and practices rooted in and shaping mundane life, is a kind of “dwelling place” through which the Infinite God makes Himself accessible to us ordinary people.