Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder. According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night. So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow. While asleep he had an amazing dream. He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven. On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down. God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven. And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.
As I was preparing my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth. Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist. For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God. I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence. Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot. I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real. I also know that I am not alone in having such experience. People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites. It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage. Beit El is but one of them.
When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text. For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down. Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around. As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations. So I wish to add mine to the list.
Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens. Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.
If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob. Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones. There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.
Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue. Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.” Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site. Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.” But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven. Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.
How is this accomplished? It is accomplished by many individual acts of will. It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site. We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention. We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God. Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us? Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us. Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”
Tags: Christianity, Churches, Faith, Genesis, God, Islam, Jacob, Jacob's Ladder, Jerusalem, Mosques, Relationships, Sacred Sites, Spirituality, Synagogue Life, Synagogues, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, the Western Wall, Torah, Torah Portion, VayeitzeiYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.