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Parashat Vayetze 5779 — 11/17/2018

Bereishit 28:10-32:3

And Ya’akov awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].” And he was frightened [or awe-struck], and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of Gd, and this is the gate of heaven.” (28:16-17)

Our tradition has it that the place where Ya’akov slept was none other than the mountain where his grandfather Avraham had bound his father Yitzchak, and which was to be the site of the Temples in Jerusalem. It is, therefore, not surprising that Ya’akov had a profound spiritual experience at that place. But what is it that makes a place holy? What does it mean that one place is holier than another? Here is some of what R. Goldin says on this point:

On the one hand, we certainly believe in the existence of locations of inherent, overarching sanctity. The Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount (Mount Moriah) – these are locations which draw us with singular power, sites where our connection to Gd is stronger than at any other.
On the other hand, we believe that we are partners with Gd in the creation of holiness wherever we may be. Gd is everywhere, and our ability to reach Him is not limited to a specific time or place. Kedusha (sanctity) can surprise us, appearing when and where it is least expected – outside the town of Luz or anywhere else – in a kind word, a loving gesture, a heartfelt prayer.
Elements of these two types of kedusha (sanctity) are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they clearly overlap.
Locations of inherent holiness in Jewish tradition achieve their kedusha only through the efforts of man in partnership with Gd. …
Even the holy Temple became sacred through the participation of man.
On the other hand, while we are enjoined to create kedusha in partnership with Gd wherever we may be, there remains a fundamental distinction between sanctity created within and outside the Land of Israel. In the Diaspora … we cannot bestow lasting kedusha upon a specific location. Outside the land [of Israel], such sanctity remains temporal and fleeting; it dissipates once our efforts cease and our presence ends. Only in the Land of Israel does the possibility of permanent kedusha exist.

I am going to punt on the question of whether or not the Land of Israel is the only inherently holy place in the world. There are certainly places of great sanctity to be found all over the world. Native Americans have identified many such places on this continent; there are dozens of places in India that certainly qualify as sacred, and I am sure that every country and every continent has places that people have gravitated to, drawn by some numinous quality that can be felt, if not defined. Our own Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) states that “Ten measures of wisdom were given to the world; 9 were given to the Land of Israel and one to the whole rest of the world. Ten measures of beauty were given to the world; Jerusalem took 9 and the whole rest of the world took one.” So while the Land of Israel may have pre-eminence, I think it’s stretching it a bit to say that there is no kedusha anywhere else.

The question then becomes, what do we mean by inherent holiness? Human beings have a sense for the holy, and wherever holiness was to be found, people went to pray there, or to commune with the spirits of the place – in other words, to seek out the transcendent dimension of life in that place where it seemed to be most apparent. Of course, that very seeking increases the connection between the transcendent and the physical world at that point, enhancing that place’s kedusha. It’s a self-reinforcing system.

This certainly happened on the Temple Mount. Gd identified the mountain to Avraham as a place of special kedusha, but then Avraham’s near-sacrifice of Yitzchak at Gd’s command (and Yitzchak’s willing acceptance of it), lent additional kedusha to the place. During the 8+ centuries that the Temples were functioning, the activities there continued to add to it, and even now, 2000 years after the last sacrifice was offered one can still feel Gd’s lively presence at the site. Rashi to our verse has Ya’akov asking (after his arrival in Charan), “Is it possible that I passed the place where my fathers prayed and I didn’t stop to pray?” Immediately he turned back to “encounter the place” and the road miraculously shortened. Ya’akov felt the kedusha left by Avraham and Yitzchak, but he added to it as well.

We know that the physical conditions of every place influence the atmosphere of that place, and also influence the way the culture of the people living there evolves. Certainly the weather patterns influence the way people dress – the indigenous peoples of Micronesia dress very differently than the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic. Language is also affected, as in the famous examples of the Inuit having many words for “snow” and the Arabs for “camel.” We experience sometimes that subtler levels of our personality can be affected by a place, as is the case when we get a “good vibe” from some location, or the opposite. The ultimate “good vibe” is connection with the transcendent. Since connection with the transcendent is a great purifier, when we pray or meditate in a particular place, our personal connection with the transcendent, especially if it is the company of many other like-minded people, leaves its imprint on the place, making it easier for those who come afterwards to form their own connection with the Ultimate Reality. Ideally we should all be focused on developing our minds so that we remain in constant contact with the ultimate, so that wherever we are becomes a holy place.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Vayetze

Jacob, on the way to Charan to seek a bride, sleeps and dreams of angels ascending a ladder between Heaven and Earth and Gd speaking to him, promising that the place where he is sleeping will be his and his descendants.  The place was originally called Luz, which means “separation, departure” but also “almond tree.”  We can think of the ladder between Heaven and Earth as ending the separation, and we can think of the almond tree as symbolic of Divine Support because after the rebellion of Korah Gd told the leaders of each of the tribes to bring a rod and to leave it overnight: Aaron’s rod grew flowers and almonds overnight whereas none of the rods of the leaders of the other twelve tribes did.

Jacob renames Luz, “Beth-El”, House of Gd, because it was here that he became aware of Gd’s Presence. Jacob builds an altar there.

Chabad.org quotes Maimonides as saying that the place where Jacob dreamed of the ladder between Heaven and Earth and of Gd speaking to him is the same place where the Altar of the Holy Temple stood, where David and Solomon built an altar, where Abraham bound Isaac, where Noah built an altar, where Cain and Abel made offerings, where Adam made offerings and from whose earth Adam was fashioned.

This is obviously a very special place but as Torah says, “Be still and know that I am Gd.”  We have the ability to experience Gd not only at the place of Jacob’s dream but also within our own Stillness and to build the Altar of the Holy Temple within this Stillness, becoming aware of Gd, Gd’s Altar of Holiness, of Liveliness, of Love.

We are doing this. Let us continue more and more sweetly, easily, lovingly and experience the Altar in our Still, Lively, Loving Consciousness — which is everywhere.

And acting from the Level of this Altar serve Gd with all our heart and soul and might and love our neighbor as our self. Thus we grow and restore ourselves and our neighbor to Fulfillment, Oneness.

Baruch HaShem