Behold! How Awesome is this Place!

Seth Herstic – 5768

11 And he lighted upon THE PLACE, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of THE PLACE, and put it under his head, and lay down in THAT PLACE to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and BEHOLD, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and BEHOLD, the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, BEHOLD, The LORD stood on top of it, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed. 14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 And, BEHOLD, I am with you, and will keep you whithersoever you go, and will bring you back into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of.’ 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in THIS PLACE; and I did not know.’ 17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is THIS PLACE! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ (Bereshit 28:11-17)

We have learned that the word ‘behold,’ in Scripture, comes to teach us that something has occurred which was unexpected. Sometimes this unexpected thing is an actual event that occurs, and other times, as in our context, it is a realization that one’s perception of reality has been incorrect. This being the case, it is apparent that there were three parts, or concepts, in Jacob’s dream that surprised him, that taught him something about reality that he “did not know” (verse 16). The word ‘behold’ shows up four times in the account of Jacob’s dream (verses 12 – 15): it is mentioned three times concerning what Jacob saw, and it is mentioned once by God in His words to Jacob.

 

But the word ‘behold’ isn’t the only one in this episode begging for attention; The Torah also emphasizes ‘the place.’ “The place” appears three times in verse 11, once in verse 16, and again in verse 17. Although the ‘beholds’ are screaming to be expounded, I believe that ‘the place’ is the textual theme of the entire episode. This word is the מלה מנחה, “key word,” in the language of Nechama Leibowitz, of the parsha before us. (According to Shmuel Peerless, “A prominent stylistic approach in Nechama’s methodology is the analysis of key words or phrases. The key word is an expression that is used repetitively in a particular section of the Torah.”)

 

Now let’s explain these ‘beholds.’ Verse 12 reads: “And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven…” I reject the explanation that Jacob learned from this vision that the physical world can be elevated to a state of holiness, or that humanity can connect with the Divine, or that prayers can reach the heavens. This was the great Yaakov Avinu; he surely knew that the gap between heaven and earth can be bridged, he surely knew of the sanctification of the mundane. What kind of a tzaddik would he be if he didn’t understand these basic concepts? Rather, the chiddush of this scene is the ladder: the fact that there is a single place in this world where bridging this gap is actually easier, where one need not “jump” in order to reach the heavens and where one’s prayers can be heard more easily, so to speak. Jacob may have also been surprised to find that there is only one entrance to heaven, i.e. that all the prayers in the world come to a single point in order to ascend before God.

 

The rest of verse 12 reads: “…And behold, the angels of God (Elokim) ascending and descending on it.”  As Rashi points out, we would have expected to see these angels descending first and then ascending. Thus, we could say that this vision taught Jacob the chiddush that there is a unique place in this world from which angels and Divine forces sprout. From the very soil of a small earthly spot come forth spiritual powers! The home of the angels is a place on earth, not a place in heaven! We would have thought otherwise.

 

An alternative explanation may be that Jacob was surprised to see “angels of Elokim” ascending and descending this ladder as opposed to “angels of Hashem.” Besides depicting God in His attribute of strict justice, the appellation “Elokim” also represents God as master of all the natural forces in creation. This is clear from the first chapter of the Torah where the title “Elokim” is used exclusively. The Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim, commenting on the account of creation, explains that angels (at least in the context of creation) are nothing but the natural forces. Therefore, the chiddush may have been that the angels of the forces of nature are beginning at the ground. In other words, at this holy spot, the forces behind nature do not just act as if on automatic pilot, dispensing rain and dew and other natural bounties in a seemingly random fashion regardless of the deeds of humanity; rather, our deeds affect the natural forces in this place. Here on earth we act, sometimes out of awe of God and sometimes out of animalistic desires; our actions are noted by the angels of Elokim (whether they be the angels of the rain or the wheat or the fruit trees, etc.) and they bring our deeds, so to speak, before God. God then makes a judgment, and the angels descend the ladder, i.e., the forces of nature give us what we deserve. This level of Divine providence is specific to Eretz Israel and it stems from “the place.”

 

Verse 13 reads, “And, behold, The LORD (Y-H-V-H) stood on top of it…” If the angels of Elokim are ascending and descending the ladder, we would have expected to find God as ‘Elokim’ standing on top of it, but that’s not the case. At the holiest moment of the year, when God draws nearest to His people, we declare “Hashem is Elokim.” Apparently, When God is close and His presence manifest, the oneness of His attributes becomes revealed. The division between mercy and strict justice is nullified in the breath of the Shechina. At this place, all the time, God as Hashem dispenses angels of Elokim.

 

“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in THIS PLACE; and I did not know.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How awesome is THIS PLACE! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (verses 16-17). In a word, through the dream, God refined Jacob’s understanding of place. Before this dream, Jacob knew only of God as HaMakom, ‘the Place of the universe.’ Jacob thought, “If God is the place of the universe, if everything is contained in Him, then how can He have a place in the universe? How can “The Place” also be in the place? How can God’s presence be more concentrated in one area than in another?” In the words of King Solomon, “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected” (I Melachim, 8:27). Jacob’s notions were sensible, but the dream taught him otherwise. The great chiddush was that “Surely the Lord (Y-H-V-H) is in this place.” Surely God, in all His transcendence, eternity, and otherness has a place inside the very finite universe that calls Him its place. מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה , “How awesome is this place!” Maybe we can also translate this expression as ‘How awesome is this God!’ As if Jacob were saying, “How awesome is this God in His relation to space! He is the place of the entire universe and yet, ‘this is none other than the house of God!’” HaMakom is also BaMakom!

 

Now we can understand the fourth ‘behold’ of the dream, the one spoken by God. “And, BEHOLD, I am with you, and will keep you whithersoever you go, and will bring you back into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of” (verse 15). After learning from the vision of the ladder that this place was God’s home, so to speak, and that the level of Divine providence at this spot was the highest in the whole universe, Jacob assumed that by leaving it, he would be leaving God. In a word, he feared that by leaving this holy place and the land of Israel, God would no longer be with him. Therefore God taught Jacob the greatest chiddush of all – that he, Jacob, would maintain this nearness to God even away from this spot and even outside the boundaries of the Holy Land. “I am with you,” God told Jacob, “no matter where you go.” What appropriate lessons to impart to Yaakov Avinu as he exited the Holy Land.

 

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