On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: A Place Unlike Any Other - Parashat Vayishlach

In Parashah Vayishlach, we find Jacob transforming a site into a holy and special place. Rabbi Rick Jacobs wonders what it means to make a place special and how we ascribe meaning to places near and dear to us.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Vayishlach. And he talks a little bit about places, how they find their meaning, and how you give them the meaning that they have.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayishlach from the book of Genesis. And I would also point out that this is the week that many, many-- I'm going to say 5,000 plus Reform Jewish leaders and seekers from all over the world are descending upon Chicago, Illinois for our biannual convention called simply The Biennial. We'll be studying plenty of Torah-- plenty of Vayishlach this week. But here is a podcast that is going to focus on a section of the parashah that I don't think will get a lot of attention at our biennial.

So in order to really zero in on the section that I want to point out from the 35th chapter of the book of Genesis, we actually have to go back to the previous week's parashah from Vayeitzei. Remember that amazing dream where Jacob lays down and rests his head on a stone, has this dream that heaven and Earth are connected and there are angels going up and down the ladder. And he wakes up in that place, and he is truly awake, maybe for the first time in his life. And he said, "This is none other than the gateway to heaven."

So early in the morning that next day, he took the stone that he had put under his head, and he set it up as a pillar, as a monument, poured oil upon it, and he named the site Beth El. Previously, this city had been named Luz. And of course, that is a very classic move in the history of religions is that you very often will create a new sacred site upon an older sacred site, in a sense kind of taking it over.

But even more then, just that moment where he creates this monument, he actually makes a vow. He says, "If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house, the Eternal shall be my God."

So it's kind of-- forgive the analogy, it's a little bit like the patriarch Jacob is playing a little game of Let's Make a Deal. You do this for me God, and I will be a dutiful follower. Well, the portion then goes on, and he goes off to the ancestral home. He falls in love once but marries twice and has a whole gaggle of children. And now he's headed back and has had an encounter with a night angel in Vayishlach, reconnected also with his brother Esau. And then in the 35th chapter of Genesis, it says, "And God said to Jacob, 'Arise, go up to Bethel and remain there and build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother, Esau.'" So it's a full circle. It's 20 years later. This was a place where he had this very powerful dream. He was afraid at that moment. And he felt reassured and connected by that dream.

And I want us to think about places in our lives that serve that function. But as a kavanah, as a kind of overarching frame, I want to read you just a very brief quote from an amazing book that I've loved for decades and decades called "Honey from the Rock" written by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. This is from the chapter on "Entrances to Holiness." He writes, "But how is it then that some things in places seem to be holy while others seem hopelessly profane? Surely there is a difference between goblets of wine and glasses of beer or Jerusalem and Las Vegas. This comes about not because of anything intrinsic to things or places but rather because of people and memories."

So oftentimes there are things that happen that really anchor a place in our imagination. For Jacob, that was of course Beth El, this place that symbolized his awakening and a place that he returns to in this week's parashah to, in a sense, offer a prayer and to reconnect with that place.

I can't help but think we, our family-- my wife and our three kids, we lived for many, many years on a street in Westchester, New York called Beth El Road. And it was an amazing home for us. And now we've moved out, and we're living in New York City, and our kids are off doing their things. And we're selling our home, and I remember having this conversation with the family. Some of our family said, "Well, what if someone buys the house and tears it down? What will happen to all those memories, all those years?" It's been a great home for us. That's where two of our three kids were brought home right from the hospital. Sat shiva for my dad there. We had amazing holidays and every days. It just overflows with these memories. And I made the statement that even if someone were to buy the house and tear it down and build a new one, we'd always have our home because that was in our hearts and in our memories.

So think about for a moment places that you have a very special connection to. Maybe the spot where you proposed to your intended, or maybe the restaurant where you ate dinner with your parent for the last time. Or maybe it's a synagogue where you named your baby or maybe the synagogue where you are named. Place and memory become fused together. And for a lot of us, that is one of the powerful things in our lives.

I can't help but think about some of the other places. I was in Berlin about a year and a half ago. And amazingly, there's an artist named Gunter Demnig. And he has a piece called "Stumbling Stones." He's put little markers in front of every home where Jews lived and where they went during the Holocaust-- if they were shipped to Auschwitz, or to Birkenau. or to any one of the camps. And you're walking along maybe about to buy some ice cream or to stop for a coffee, and your feet trip on these little square gold stones with names of people who died who lived there. It's the most stunning thing. So these are places that look so ordinary. They look so modern and everything is going on. But for those moments when you stumble on these stones, you're brought back and made aware.

I also think in my neighborhood in Jerusalem, the German colony where we have a small apartment and love to go down in Emek Refaim. And every time I walk into cafe Hillel, I see the little memorial plaque reminding us that cafe Hillel had one of the most horrific suicide bombings on September 9, 2003. And it's still a lovely place to sit and have a coffee with a friend, but that place has a larger memory. It's a collective memory not just a personal memory.

So I think about all these things. And I think about my friend Michael Arad, the Israeli-American architect who was chosen to design the World Trade Center memorial. And what an overwhelming task. He was tasked with how do you commemorate the horrific attacks of 9/11? And what would you do? And he won the competition from many, many others-- thousands I believe. And he describes what he set out to do in creating that memorial. And if you've been to New York City, you know that that space is in a sense hallowed ground. And yet if you think about it, that's a space that also makes us aware of something that nothing could ever quite capture what happened that day.

But Michael talks about-- he says, what I was really going for-- and this is a quote, "I think, was actually to try and create a moment of silence, a moment for quiet introspection. And what people do with that opportunity or that moment of inner thought is really up to them and reflects on each one of us and what's important. And there's no single correct, so to speak, way of experiencing a memorial"

I just think there's something very powerful in what Jacob experiences in our Torah portion, something I'm sure every single one of us has experienced in some way. Places that are just larger than life, that have a memory personal or collective, like the 9/11 Memorial.

Like another site that Michael Arad helped design, which was he designed a spectacular design for the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the one that still has yet to be built. And Michael being a brilliant architect, created a whole different way of experiencing the archeology, which is below you and in front of you, and the contemporary experience of the space.

Well, I also can't help but think of stopping-- I was in Mississippi. I was on our way to our camp a couple of years back. We have a wonderful URJ camp in Utica, Mississippi. It's called Jacob's Camp. No, it's not named after Rick Jacobs. It's named after Henry S. Jacobs.

And I remember driving along and seeing all these signs about civil war battles that had been fought. And I thought, maybe I ought to stop, and I did. And it's just hard to even imagine the blood, and the pain, and the loss, and the whole experience. And then I thought, in Gettysburg, our great President Lincoln gave an extraordinary address about that place and what it remembers.

Here's just a little portion. Again, it was 10 sentences, 271 words, maybe one of the most, if not the most impactful speech ever given in American history. So here's just an excerpt from the Gettysburg Address about that place and what it remembers.

He writes, "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

I don't think there are a lot of more eloquent words spoken. But I do feel the power of this Torah portion and of Jacob touching base in this place, having made a vow on his way from the land of Israel and now returning. The vow has been fulfilled. He's been kept alive. He's been nourished. He's been clothed. And now he's here to offer prayers at this place, this marker that he set up, this remembrance of the awakening and of the ladder, and all the hope, and all the dreams of that moment all come alive for him.

I hope they all come alive for us in the sacred places that we remember and visit, in the places that are just personally edifying but maybe not to anyone else, and those places that are edifying to everyone. So I'll conclude with a last reading from Larry Kushner's book, Honey from the Rock.

He says, "The cycle alternates between grand cathedrals and meditation amidst the trees of the forest. When people become convinced that the places and the things are themselves holy or that only some people have the spiritual power, then it's time once more to set out for the fields and rediscover the fundamental truth. Entrances to holiness are everywhere and all the time."

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah." Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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"On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat!