Vayeitzei: Entering the Sacred Space

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 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 and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob 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.” Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz.

Genesis 28:10-19 (JPS Tanakh)

Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and journeys to Charan. On the way, he encounters “the place” and sleeps there, dreaming of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing and descending on it; G‑d appears and promises that the land upon which he lies will be given to his descendants. In the morning, Jacob raises the stone on which he laid his head as an altar and monument, pledging that it will be made the house of G‑d.

“Vayeitzei in a Nutshell”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeitzei
Genesis 28:10-32:3

According to Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 28:11:

“The place” is Mount Moriah (the “Temple Mount” in Jerusalem, where Abraham had bound Isaac upon the altar and where King Solomon would erect the Holy Temple).

Whether that is literally true that Jacob chose to spend that night on the Temple Mount or not, there’s no way to know, but it is correct according to Jewish tradition. It’s also fitting that my commentary for this week’s Torah portion should be on the site of the Temple, given the sermon I heard at church last week. I’m not so certain that Christians can grasp what the Temple (and its current lack of existence) means to the Jewish people, since the center of our religious lives is the Messiah and not Jerusalem.

Why do we call G-d Hamakom, “The Place”? Said Rabbi Jose ben Chalafta: We do not know whether G-d is the place of His world or whether His world is His place. But when the verse (Exodus 33:21) states, “Behold, there is a place with Me,” it follows that G-d is the place of His world, but His world is not His place.

-Midrash Rabbah

Tisha b'Av at the Kotel 2007While Christianity too has its own rich mystic tradition, Protestantism tends to shy away from any such thing, so how Jews, and particularly the Chassidic tradition tends to view God, Moses, the Torah, and the Temple, seem not just mysterious, but almost completely silly. It’s probably why one fellow in the last Sunday’s Bible study class referred to Orthodox Jews adopting a certain manner of dress and Jewish dedication to praying at the Kotel as “putting God in a box.” Tradition, ritual, and looking outside the literal (English) language of the Bible (ironically) seem to Christians as if Jews are restricting God rather than letting “God be God.”

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote a commentary on Vayeitzei and the Temple called The Temple Mount as Sacred Space. Sacred space? Not a “sacred place?”

Torah generally talks in terms of dual systems: Heaven and Earth; G-d and Man; Creator and created; Nothingness and something. So if we want to get into fascinating territory, we can ask: Where do they meet and what happens there?

The first description of such a place was given by Jacob, the third of the three fathers of the Jewish people. On his way leaving the land of Canaan he slept at a place and dreamt of a ladder with messengers of G-d ascending and descending. When he awoke, he exclaimed, “Y-H-V-H (–we pronounce that ‘Havayeh,’ as the Torah instructs us not to pronounce the four letter name of G-d the way it is written; more about this name later–) is in this place, and I didn’t realize!” Once this realization had hit him, he trembled and said, “This place is awesome!” (The classic Aramaic translation reads, “This is not a normal place.”) And then, “This could only be the house of Elokim, and this is the gateway of heaven!”

According to the sermon I heard last Sunday, “Israel’s history has been characterized by limiting worship to a sacred place, rather than a sacred person.” This is worded as if Israel had made a mistake and venerated the Temple as an act of faithlessness somehow, but that ignores how some religious Jews view the Temple Mount as “sacred space.” Even a plain-text reading of  Genesis 28:10-19 seems to suggest that God wasn’t there with Jacob just because God is everywhere, but because the place where Jacob slept was somehow special, as if the geographic location held some sort of supernatural and mystic significance. Small wonder that Jerusalem has been the object of strife and envy for thousands of years.

There’s a portion of Nehemiah that directs the Israelites to march around the boundaries of Jerusalem, and during his sermon, Pastor Randy said that when he takes his tour group to Israel next spring and they visit Jerusalem, the group will obey this “commandment” and literally walk around the Holy City. But in Nehemiah 12:27-47, it records that Nehemiah divided his choirs of Levites to march around the city to dedicate the wall of Jerusalem.

Maybe I’m thinking of a different part of the Tanakh.

It’s traditional during Sukkot for Jews and Christians to march around Jerusalem’s walls. Jews also march around Jerusalem to commemorate many Jewish tragedies on the 9th day of Av (Tisha B’Av).

While there are some Christians who have the drive and passion to position themselves to better understand Jews and Judaism, for most of us, it’s a bit of a stretch. That’s not because we can’t understand, but because we choose not to, or worse, because we choose to employ a totally maladaptive way of “understanding” Judaism that completely misses the point.

“Messianic Judaism”, or, “Evangelical Jewish Cosplay” is simply another attempt at awkward, text-based reconstructionism, except this awkward, text-based reconstructionism also poorly co-opts living Rabbinic Jewish traditions, creating a Frankenstein LARP that mocks both Jews and Christians.

If we, as Christians, cannot or will not enter “the sacred space” (and perhaps this is a space that only a Jew may enter) or even try to comprehend that it may well exist in our world, we shouldn’t deny the right of the Jews to enter there, nor should we denigrate them for wanting to enter with all of their hearts.

Although the world is generally a binary place, there is a third factor, that which binds and unites all opposites together–even space and non-space. And that, too, is the revelation exemplified by the Third Temple, may it be built very soon, sooner than we can imagine.

Good Shabbos.

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