Vayetzei: You Are the Gate Of Heaven

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Shabbat Snow-lom! It’s looking cold and wet outside, so let’s all
imagine ourselves out in the fields of the ancient Middle East, where
our ancestor Yaakov found himself sleeping alone one night after
leaving his parent’s home. At the end of the last parsha, Yaakov is on
the run, fearing (not without reason) that his brother Esav will kill
him for stealing the blessing of the first born.

On the way to Haran- his uncle’s hometown- Yaacov has a wondrous
dream-vision (more about that in a bit.) He gets to Haran, falls in
love with his cousin Rakhel, but gets tricked into marrying her older
sister Leah first. Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan for many years,
and has 13 children with four different women. (!) He eventually
decides to go back to his own homeland (Caanan/ Israel), and has to do
some tricky negotiations with his father-in-law to be permitted to
leave with his wives, concubines, children, and much property.

Many of you may remember the phrase “Jacob’s ladder,” which refers to
the dream-vision Yaakov had on the way to Haran, right at the
beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. While travelling, Yaakov
puts a stone under his head for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, or
stairway, to heaven, with angels going up and down. God promises to
make his descendants into a great nation, and promises to bring him
back to the land of Israel.

Yaakov awakes from his dream, and realized that he’s experienced the
Divine Presence:

” And Yaakov awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord
is in this place, and I did not know. And he 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.’ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis) 28:16-17

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the late
1800’s, asks an interesting question: why was Yaakov afraid? Think
about it: if you received a Divine vision promising great things,
wouldn’t you probably be happy and secure?

Hirsch’s answer is so beautiful I’ve written it out in full:

“What made him afraid? Probably nothing else, but the consciousness of
this new idea that and the demands that it brings with it, that man,
frail man, is to be, should be, the bearer of the Glory of God on
Earth, could have brought this overwhelming feeling of fear in him:
how awesome is this place. What has been shown me here is none other
than the `house of God,’ and that, at the same time, is `the gate to
Heaven.’ The House of God, a house into which God moves, that a human
life can be, and should be, such that when the ascending angels seek
God in heaven, they have to come down to find Him amongst mankind. And
every such house, in which such a life is lived, is the `gate of
Heaven,’ a gate through which we come to God, accordingly, the most
consummate union of the earthly with the Heavenly.” (S.R.Hirsch,
“Commentary on the Torah,” Judaic Press.)

Hirsch’s point, as I understand it, is both simple and profound: that
Yaakov’s fear came from understanding that the place where he had the
vision is not the “House of God” and the “Gate of Heaven,” but he,
himself, Yaakov, is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven! Yaakov is
afraid because he realizes he’s going to have to live in a different
way, a way which makes the Divine Presence manifest here on Earth.
It’s not going to be simple or quick (it’s 20 years before Yaakov
makes peace with his brother), and it’s going to mean moving out of
his “comfort zone” of ethics and behavior.

According to this reading, what frightens Yaakov is the realization
that spiritual transformation involves unpredictable change- in his
case, so much so that he gets a whole new name, but not until after
much struggle with self and others. Yaakov’s vision was that “God was
in this place”- not in the patch of earth where he lay sleeping, but
in the spark of Spirit that each of us bears within. Thus, the story
is not about stumbling upon some physical place which bears unique
holiness: the story is about coming to a certain place in life’s
spiritual journey, a place where great growth and new perspectives
come bursting through, bringing both great hope and great discomfort
with life as it’s been lived so far.

We, “frail humankind,” are the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, if
only we choose to be. It may be frightening at times, but what destiny
worth achieving wouldn’t bring us into the unknown? God was in that
Place, and Yaakov didn’t know it; the Divine Presence rests within
each of us, and our challenge is to become more conscious of it, every
day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha, and additional
commentary, here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- I just bought the 5 volume English translation of S. R. Hirsch’s
Torah commentaries, so I suspect you’ll be hearing more from him in
the months to come. If you’re interested, here’s a short biography:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Hirsch.html

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