Vayeitze: The Gate of Heaven

Good morning!

It was a beautiful holiday in Poughkeepsie- a glorious fall day for feasting or hiking and all kinds of merriment. So if you’re recovering from too much Thanksgiving (the meal, not the spiritual practice of giving thanks- can’t have too much of that), well, perhaps a good walk would be in order, because in addition to the exercise, you never know what you’ll encounter out on the trail.

Which brings us, of course, to the Torah portion Vayeitze, which begins with our forefather Yaakov out in the wilderness, on the lam after stealing his brother’s blessing, asleep at night while a miraculous ladder or ziggurat appears in a vision:

“He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him. . . . Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’  Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’ ” (Bereshit 28:12, 16-17)

Our friend Rashi brings many interesting midrashim and interpretations to this story, of which two in particular resonate with our theme this year of connecting the parsha to prayer and liturgy. First, Rashi notes that when Yaakov arrived at the place of his vision, the sun had set, and the peculiar verb used for “to arrive” is connected to a verse in Jeremiah that speaks of prayer. Thus, the ancient sages say that Yaakov prayed the evening prayer- ma’ariv– out in this place, all alone in the night.

Then he falls asleep and has his vision of the ladder or stairway to heaven, and now things get really interesting. Rashi comments on the verse quoted above, that the place of Yaakov’s vision was “the abode of God,” and concludes that the center part of the ladder was opposite Jerusalem, which housed (generations after Yaakov) the Temple, the “house of God.” Rashi brings an earlier text that the foot of the ladder was in Beersheva (where Yaakov came from) and the top was in Beit-El, north of Jerusalem- so the middle part was right opposite the Temple itself.

Now, this is a fun midrash and it connects the “abode of God” in Yaakov’s vision with the “house of God” of later Biblical history, but there’s a problem: Yaakov may call the place Beit-El, the “house of God,” but the Torah tells us it used to be called Luz, which is not Jerusalem at all! (Cf. verse 19.)  So now Rashi says something astounding: he says the ladder was opposite the Temple Mount because the Mount itself was “uprooted” from its place to the wilderness where he slept!

As I read it, the point is not that mountains move while we sleep, but that the “house of God” is a portable concept, limited not by geography but by our openness and perception. In other words- if Yaakov’s bed of rocks in the desert and the earthly Temple were both described as the “house of God,” it implies that anywhere we have radical openness to the Sacred is like the Temple Mount, holy not because of geography but because of theophany. That is, a sacred place is not where we stand, but how we see.

This, to me, is also why Rashi goes out on a midrashic limb to connect the setting sun to ma’ariv, the evening prayer- because what better way to imagine Yaakov opening himself up to a vision of the heavens than through the humility of petition and thanksgiving?

Unfortunately, I can’t promise that praying ma’ariv will lead to vision of the Divine like Yaakov’s. However, I do believe that prayer, which is the choice to open ourselves to the Presence, deepens our spiritual perception, so that we are better able to see the connection between heaven and earth, between the sacred aspect of life and the reality of our improbable journeys. To put it another way, with an open heart, anywhere you are can be the gate of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- To see the text of the Torah portion and haftarah, go here.

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1 Comment »

  1. Wow am I actually the first comment to your great writing!?

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