In this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, we read about Jacob's famous dream, in which God stands beside Jacob and makes a covenant to give him land, progeny, and protection. As a result, Jacob names that place Bethel, Beit-El, or "House of God." (Genesis 28:19)
In a midrash, the rabbis teach us that this location is the site of the Holy Temple that was later built in Jerusalem and that Jacob was not the first patriarch to come to this place. Abraham referred to it as a har, "mountain," when he bound Isaac on that exact site in Genesis 22; and Isaac later called it a sadeh, "field." (Genesis 27:3) Interpreting the Temple to represent religious and spiritual fulfillment, what can we learn about our own spiritual lives from the different ways in which our patriarchs viewed this holy place?
Climbing the mountain with Abraham allows us to look far and wide, reminding us that being Jewish means opening our eyes to the people and world around us and practicing tikkun olam, "repair of the world." A purely parochial field of vision breeds a narcissistic fixation on our own selves and our own people. Judaism's universal perspective, so eagerly embraced by the Reform Movement, also inspires us to be open to the vast panoply of ideas gleaned from the cultures around us and to enrich our own religion and lives with the wisdom of other nations.
Standing in the field with Isaac directs us to another dimension of Jewish religious life. A field is a source of nourishment and sustenance, but in order to reap the amazing produce of the field, we must do the hard work of caring for it. By extension, to be nourished from the "field" of Judaism, we have to cultivate that field by engaging in a continual process of study, learning, and experimentation with the wide array of mitzvot in order to create a more meaningful Jewish life.
Jacob viewed this holy place as a house, reminding us that in addition to residing in the universality of the mountain, we Jews must keep our own Jewish house in order. We must take great care to nurture our own distinctive Jewish identities and tend to the needs of the Jewish people. For Judaism to survive and have ultimate meaning, it has to be cultivated and practiced in the home, not just in the Temple. The rabbis' identification of Jacob's "House of God" (Beit-El) with the Temple is a potent reminder that as Jews, we must strive to transform our homes into a mikdash m'at, a "miniature sanctuary." We ourselves, with the help of what we learn and experience in our synagogues, can maintain a vibrant Temple, a dynamic Jewish life, in our own homes. To be a Jew means to make one's house a Beit-El, "House of God."
Questions for Discussion
- Which image of the Temple/Judaism do you find the most appealing—that of the mountain, the field, or the house?
- One common denominator among climbing a mountain, harvesting a field, and building a house is that they all require work that must be performed one step at a time. How do you and your family "work at" your Judaism?
- As a Jew, is your outlook on the world universal, particular, or a combination of the two? In what way(s)? Why?
Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman serves at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.