Tag Archives: vayetze

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.

Vayetze: The Shabbat Heritage

In the Torah portion Vayeitzei , G-d blesses Yaakov, declaring to him: (Bereishis 28:14) “You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.” The Gemara comments: (Shabbos 118a) “Whoever delights in the Shabbos receives an unlimited heritage, as is written: (Yeshayahu 58:14) ‘Then you shall delight in G-d… and I will nourish you with the heritage of Yaakov,’ of whom it is written: ‘You shall spread out to the west, to the east….’ ”

The reward for the performance of a mitzvah is, of course, measure for measure. (See Sotah 8b, 9b. See also Tanya ch. 39) What aspect of the mitzvah of Shabbos causes its reward to be “an unlimited heritage”?

Shabbos differs from all other mitzvos in that the performance of other mitzvos is achieved through labor and action. There are thus differences between the manner in which a very righteous individual will perform a mitzvah and the manner in which it will be performed by a simple person.

Observing Shabbos, however, consists of a cessation from labor. With regard to “not doing,” all Jews can be equal.

“Shabbos – An Unlimited Heritage”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeitzei
Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XV, pp. 226-229
and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

I know a discussion of Shabbat observance seems pretty far afield in relation to a plain reading of this week’s Torah Portion, but this is the association I found in the Chassidic Dimension’s commentary. Christianity has difficulty with some of the “linkage” offered by the Rabbis between specific events described in the Torah (the blessing God gives to Jacob in Genesis 28:14) and much larger and seemingly unrelated topics, but if you choose to look at them as metaphor, it’s a little bit easier to comprehend.

I’ve always had issues with reserving Shabbat to just the Jewish people. There are plenty of other commandments and blessings that I have no problem with being uniquely Jewish, but a weekly Shabbat rest in order to devote our thoughts and prayers to God? Why should only Jews do this? God sanctified the day at the end of Creation.

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. –Genesis 2:3 (JPS Tanakh)

OK, I’m not that naive. God also directly associated the Shabbat with the Exodus from Egypt, thus:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. –Deuteronomy 5:15

In doing my research for this morning’s “meditation”, I came along an interesting forum discussion on the topic of Shabbat and the Exodus at judaism.stackexchange.com where a similar question was raised by one man’s four year old son:

Why do you say “Mitzrayim” in Kiddush every week? “Mitzrayim” is a Pesach word!

Minus the Hebrew (which I can’t reproduce here), the father added a follow up question:

Tack-on question: Once you’ve established that Shabbat is linked both to Creation and to the Exodus, why is the terminology in Kiddush for these links slightly different? Shabbat is called – “a memorial to the deed of Creation” and – “commemorating the Exodus from Egypt” (translations from Wikipedia; emphases mine).

You can go to judaism.stackexchange.com and read the entire thread. I can certainly see how the Shabbat is inexorably linked to the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt and how saying the kiddush on every Erev Shabbat commemorates the Exodus event for the Children of Israel.

But must the Shabbat observance be exclusively for the Jews?

The reason why all Jews are entirely equal with regard to the mitzvah of cessation of labor on Shabbos stems from the fact that the mitzvah of Shabbos touches the essence of the Jewish soul. Differences between one Jew and another exist only on an external level; with regard to their essence, they are all equal.

The Chabad commentary describes why all Jews are equal on the Shabbat, regardless of social status or other apparent divisions, because of their Jewish souls, but the Shabbat also separates Jews and Gentiles. Is the “essence” between Jewish and Gentile souls so incredibly different that we non-Jews cannot also connect to the Shabbat?

Some non-Jews, such as those associated with the “Messianic” movement, chafe when told by some Jews that the Gentiles, Christians or otherwise, are not commanded to observe the Shabbat and there is no penalty for a Gentile who fails to observe a Shabbat rest in the manner commanded for Jews. OK, I’ll buy that part, but what about Gentiles observing the Shabbat as a moral conviction and in acknowledgment of God’s creative sovereignty over the universe? We all live in Creation and God made the Gentile as He made the Jew. Is it so bad if a Christian were to rest on the Shabbat as “a memorial to the deed of Creation?”

Being married to a Jew, I have sort of a built-in reason for observing Shabbat, though my wife and I don’t do this as well as we would like. Christianity cast off the Jewish form of Shabbat observance and worship along with anything else in Christian practice that could even remotely be considered Jewish thanks to the birth and expansion of Supersessionist theology in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, but this has been more harm to us than to the Jews.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has, on various occasions, suggested that Jewish values, including the Shabbat, should be disseminated to the nations, at least in some fashion, which never fails to cause a stir, both in Jewish and in Christian circles. But while the Chabad commentary says that the Jewish people enjoy an “unlimited heritage” due to their Shabbos observance, can not the rest of us choose to at least honor God’s absolute rule of Creation by honoring the Shabbat? Do we dilute Jewish uniqueness if we quietly light the candles on Friday night as well, praising and thanking our King and our God?

There’s nothing higher than finding truth on your own.

All worlds were made, all barriers put in place, every veil over G-dliness hung, and the soul plummeted from its pristine height into the confusion of this harsh world—

—all for this one thing alone: That you should uncover truth on your own.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Highest High”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

In spirit and in truth I wish you all Good Shabbos.