Yaakov takes leave of his parents and begins his journey. As the sun sets he settles for the night, in a place not immediately identified by name:
And Yaakov went out from Beersheva, and went toward Haran. And he arrived at the place, and remained there all night, because the sun had set; and he took of the stones of the place, and put them beneath his head, and lay down in that place. (Bereishit 28:10-11
It is here that Yaakov has an epiphany. He sees a ladder reaching to heaven upon which angels are ascending and descending. When he awakes, Yaakov speaks about this place:
And Yaakov awoke from his sleep, and he said, 'Surely God is in this place; and I did not know.' And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is no other than the house of the Almighty, and this is the gate of heaven. (Bereishit 28:16-17)
Yaakov's vision is completely different than anything his father or grandfather saw. He senses God's presence in this place, as did Yitzchak and Avraham before him (see below), but he also senses the grandeur and majesty of the House of God. His vision is specific, detailed, and not the general awareness and understanding of God that his father and grandfather had. He comprehends that the point at which he stands is a gateway to heaven which spans the void between the physical terrain beneath his feet and the heavenly world, the spiritual and transcendent spheres beyond this world. Yaakov's vision is almost unfathomable, for he describes spiritual structures which transcend the physical yet have a physical manifestation.
Only after considering the unique juxtaposition of physical and spiritual that this place embodies, we finally learn that the place does have a name - a name that is abandoned. Yaakov gives this place a new name that reflects his vision and the awesome presence that he sensed there:
And he called the name of that place Beit-El; but the name of the city was Luz at first. (Bereishit 28:19)
Yaakov's sojourn there on his way to Haran seems more than coincidental; the language of the verse may imply that he had set his sights on this spot, and managed to navigate accurately to reach it. Indeed, years later, when he returns from Haran to the land of his fathers, he visits this very particular place once again:
And God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. And Yaakov set up a pillar in the place where he talked with Him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Yaakov called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beit-El. (Bereishit 35:13-15)
While it should come as no surprise that tradition identifies this place with Jerusalem,(1) this is not a pat, easy answer to a geographical word game. The unique identity of this place, and its central role in our theology, deserve closer examination.
Before turning our attention to the significance of Yaakov's vision, it is important to note that Yaakov is not the first of our forefathers to be granted extraordinary spiritual experiences at this place, nor is he the first to bring offerings there. Although Avraham had built altars to God in various locations in the Land of Canaan, and despite the fact that Avraham had prayed to God, had even held conversations with God, in other locations, it was here that Avraham actually brought his very first offering:
And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and broke the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place from afar... And they came to the place which God had told him; and Avraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Yitzchak his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood... And Avraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh; as it is said to this day, 'In the Mount of God He shall be seen'. (Bereishit 22:3,4,9,14)
Avraham and Yitzchak are brought, by Divine command, to this specific place, and it is here that Yitzchak is bound up for an offering, and eventually replaced by the ram that is sacrificed in his stead. Here, as in the two later visits by Yaakov, this place is called "the place", above all others, different than all others. This is the place that will house the Beit HaMikdash, the physical manifestation of God's presence, the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds - perhaps the very House of God that Yaakov saw in prophetic vision.
The word makom which recurs over and over both in the Akeida scene and in our present parsha, appears earlier in the Torah. And while it is often no more than a general description of place, this same word is often used in an even more specific sense than in our present case, referring to God Himself:
"And he arrived at the place:" Why is God called Makom? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Yalqut Shimoni Vayetze remez 117)
Let us look back to the very beginning in order to fully understand this far-reaching philosophical usage: The first time the word makom is used in the Torah, God gathers all the primordial waters to one place and thus reveals the earth below. This gathering of water is called mikveh:(2)
And God said, 'Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;' and it was so.' (Bereishit 1:9)
The act of gathering the waters which results in dry land being revealed is called mikveh, while the place into which the waters are gathered is calledmakom. We know in our own experience that this gathering of water, the mikveh, is a place of purity, where people can return to themselves - in the pure, pristine sense of regeneration; it is a place where a person can return to God. In a very real sense, the mikveh reconnects us with the very essence of our being, to the foundations of human identity: The Torah describes the creation of man as a hybrid of the spiritual and the physical - a coming together of two worlds:
And the Almighty God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Bereishit 2:7)
Man is formed out of the dust of the earth, and this very physical stuff is infused with spirituality. And yet, Rashi explains, even the physical matter of which man is formed is not devoid of spirituality. Rashi offers two possibilities for the provenance of this "dust of the earth". According to the first, God gathered dust from all over the Earth, forming man from the entirety of the Earth. According to the second interpretation, very specific earth is used to form man - earth gathered from "THE PLACE" - from this very specific makom to which Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were drawn.(3) The Targum (pseudo)- Yonatan states clearly that the dust was gathered from the place where the Beit Hamikdash would stand.(4) In other words, the hybrid creature called man is made of physical stuff - dust of the earth- and a breath of God - the spiritual "image of God" with which we are uniquely gifted, but even the physical part of man originates from the holiest place.
What does this mean for each of us? When we return to Jerusalem, we return home in a very basic, elemental sense. The very stones of the Temple Mount are of one piece with our bodies. We are part and parcel of the Holy Altar, and that holiest of places is intertwined with our very essence. Holiness and purity are not extraneous, external, foreign concepts; they are who we are. We are, in the most basic sense, hardwired for holiness, and it is to this state of purity that we strive to return - to our purest selves. It is to this inner, innate purity that the elemental waters of the mikveh return us.
Conversely, the ultimate punishment for transgressing against our innate purity, for turning our backs on the image of God within us, is exile. From the very start, sin distanced us from our life-source, from the wellspring of our spirituality and vitality. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were exiled. So, too, Cain. In light of what we have learned, exile can now be understood on several levels: Exile is more than replacing the familiar with the unknown, more than a disconnection from the physical environment of one's home. Exile is, above all, a disconnection from the source of our spiritual identity. Exile is distancing of the body as well as the soul from the makom of purity; in a certain sense, exile is a sort of quasi-death. Man's physical place is intertwined with his spiritual existence in ways that are often too subtle to discern. The Maharal (5) expressed this idea by pointing out that the word makom is related etymologically to mekayem, something that sustains and provides existence: When a person is exiled they lose more than their physical frame of reference. They are denied a part of their very existence. This explains why a person found guilty of negligent or unintentional homicide is forced into exile: In a world of absolute justice, a murderer forfeits his own life. In a case where absolute justice is impossible, a sort of quasi-death is imposed, and the murderer is disconnected from his natural place, from the source of his identity. A person who has taken the life of another is cleansed by the quasi-death experience of exile. Interestingly, this exile comes to an end with the death of the Kohen Gadol:(6) The connection between the Kohen Gadol, custodian of the Beit Hamikdash, and the end of this person's wandering, presents additional confirmation of the relationship between the Makom HaMikdash and the spiritual source of life.
The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was not only the destruction of the symbol of national sovereignty, it was also the dismantling of the bridge that had connected our physical plane with the spiritual realm beyond. The exile that followed in the wake of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was, above and beyond the physical dispersion of the Jewish People, a spiritual disconnection from our place of identity and our purest selves.
Careful consideration should be given to the theological ramifications of Yaakov's vision and to the question of "sacred ground". In this very basic yet profound teaching, we may discern the point of divergence between Judaism and pantheism: While Judaism sees Godliness in every element of Creation, pantheism turned every force of nature into a god. In other words, we may say that Judaism is not completely summarized by the concept 'monotheism'; Judaism describes God as not only unique and singular, but also transcendent. Thus, according to Jewish theology, God does not exist within the physical world, and no place can confine God.(7) On the other hand, Judaism teaches that while the physical world cannot contain God, and is not itself god, the physical world can be imbued with holiness which emanates from God. Although God is not limited to space, in certain spaces mankind can be more attuned to Godliness. This is the nature of the holiness of the Beit Hamikdash: it is not intrinsic, it emanates from God. Before the Temple was built, Yaakov felt God's holiness emanating from the Makom HaMikdash, described by the ladder in his vision. He called the place Beit El, for he envisioned the House of God that would one day give all of his descendants access to God's holiness. Although Yaakov was just beginning his journey and would return to that place only after many painful years in exile, the vision of that place, the knowledge of that connection to the transcendent, the assurance that the Beit HaMikdash would one day be built there, sustained Yaakov throughout his exile, as it sustained his descendants generations later.
God's identity is absolute, yet holiness is often subject to human perception: The method by which God makes Himself manifest in the physical world can be perceived by different people in many different ways. The Talmud relates that one of the most vivid descriptions of the Divine, which was recorded by the prophet Yehezkel, was a subjective vision, limited by the prophet's relatively low prophetic abilities. The far more subdued vision recorded by the prophet Yeshayahu was, in fact, the identical vision, seen through a different human prism:
Rava said: All that Yehezkel saw, Yeshayahu saw. What does Yehezkel resemble? A villager who saw the king. And what does Yeshayahu resemble? A townsman who saw the king. (Talmud Bavli Chagiga 13b
Yeshayahu describes God's holiness which fills the world:
In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw God sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Sanctuary. Above it stood the Seraphim; each one had six wings; with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they did fly. And one cried to another, and said, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His Glory.' Yeshayahu 6:1-3
Yechezkel's vision seems quite different:
And he said to me, 'Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears. And go, get you to the exile, to your people, and speak to them, and tell them, "Thus said the Almighty God"; whether they will hear, or whether they will refuse to hear. Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great sound, saying, 'Blessed be the Glory of God from His place. (Yechezkel 3:10-12)
While Yeshayahu perceives holiness emanating from God and filling all of Creation, Yechezkel perceives holiness radiating from a specific point, "the place," the makom. Yeshayahu prophesied in Jerusalem, while the Beit HaMikdash yet stood, and he had a very clear vision of how the Glory of God fills all of Creation. Yechezkel prophesized from the exile, as the Temple lay in ruins, and he sensed that the source of blessing, the point from which God's Glory emanates, is that specific place, the Makom HaMikdash. It seems elementary to our Talmudic sages that the perception of God's manifestation in the physical world will be affected by the different vantage points of each prophet: The vision from exile, seen by a wandering Jew who has been disconnected from his makom, will necessarily differ from a vision seen at the epicenter of holiness.
Like Yechezkel, Yaakov calls this place makom, yet he renames it Beit El - the "House of God". He sees the angels going up and going down; he understands that this is the gate to heaven, that holiness emanates from this place to the rest of the world. He stands with his feet on the ground of the holiest place on Earth, as did Yeshayahu, yet Yaakov is on his way into exile - like Yechezkel.(8)
Years later, before Yaakov leaves the Land of Israel for a second time, he seems more reluctant. He is less able to focus on the vision of the future, less willing to exile himself from the place where God's Presence is manifest. And God Himself gives Yaakov assurances:
And Yisrael traveled with all that he had, and came to Beersheva, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. And God spoke to Yisrael in the visions of the night, and said, 'Yaakov, Yaakov'. And he said, 'Here am I.' And he said, 'I am the Almighty, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation; I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Yosef shall put his hand upon your eyes. (Bereishit 46:1-4)
Once again, Yaakov is forced to leave the Land; once again, he is granted a vision which will comfort and sustain him, but now an important element is added. God says, "I will go down with you." The Shechina, the Glory of God, will be discernable beyond the borders of Israel, beyond the confines of the Beit HaMikdash, beyond the boundaries of that very specific makom.(9) God informs Yaakov that He will always be with Yaakov and his descendents - even in Egypt, in the epicenter of darkness and evil. God Himself becomesHaMakom; the Shechina which accompanies Yisrael into exile is the manifestation of that same connection, previously confined to the one awesome space revealed to the forefathers.
In a certain sense, we may think that God's promise to Yaakov was superfluous: God transcends time and space. There is no place devoid of His holiness, and God is not confined to any one place. As Yeshayahu taught, "the entire world is filled with His Glory." And yet, we are not able to be fully attuned to God's Presence at all times, in all of the places we find ourselves. At times we feel alone, ungrounded, restless; we don't feel the Shechina upon us, and we don't see the ladder. It is not always easy to access the spirituality which transcends the confines of our physical space. For this reason, Yaakov hesitated, and God assured him: "I am with you. I will be with you in exile, and I will return to with you from exile."
The words of comfort and reassurance God offers Yaakov/Yisrael remind us of the words we ourselves use to comfort mourners:
May the "Place" (HaMakom) give you solace along with all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
Here, God Himself is the Makom; when we feel distant, bereft, disconnected from our life-source, in need of comfort, it is specifically the aspect of God as related to makom that comforts us. Moreover, we are consoled by connecting our own personal loss to the comfort that comes from Jerusalem, from that very specific makom that is the source of our true identity. Our lives are bound up with the Altar in Jerusalem, with the dust of the earth of the Temple Mount. Every death, then, is a destruction of the Altar and the Temple. When we feel distant, when we feel alienated and exiled, when death strikes and we feel alone, God, The Place, the Makom and the Mekayam - the source and sustainer of all existence, lifts us up by revealing to us, once again, that unique bridge that spans the void and acts as a conduit between our physical and spiritual selves. Like Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, and Yaakov before them, He allows us to see that truly His Glory fills all existence.
1. According to tradition this is where Yitzchak prays as well. See Akaidat Yitzchak chapter 24 where the idea is expressed succinctly.
2. Interestingly, Targum Unkulus translates mikveh as beit kinishta - which would meanbeit kenneset ( or in Latin, synagogue) - a place where people gather for a holy purpose.
3. Rashi, Bereishit 2:7.
4. Targum Yonatan, Bereishit 2:7.
5. See comments of the Maharal Chidushei Aggadot Sanhedrin page 147.
6. Bamidbar 35:25.
7. See the comments of the Maharsha Brachot 40a.
8. This idea is described by Rav Yitzchak Isaac Chaver in his drasha for Bereishit section 103.
9. See Mechilta B'shalach, Shira parsha gimmel, Talmud Bavli Megila 29a.