Minutes of Torah
For most liberal Jews, when issues of faith and reason collide, the belief in science, as opposed to miracles, generally prevails in explaining how the world works. I share that primary reliance on science and logic in resolving my daily life episodes. Nevertheless, the ‘branch’ of Judaism I have been attracted to in recent years — Neo-Hasidism, seeks to bridge the gap between faith and science. One of its primary theological principles (the way that we think of God), is based on the familiar words uttered by the prophet Isaiah and which form the foundation of the liturgical Kedushah:
“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tzeva-ot, MELO CHOL HA’ARETZ KEVODO —
Holy, holy, holy, the Heavenly Host, — the whole world is filled with the Divine presence.”
With this principle, the question is not whether God is present in the world. Instead, the quandary posed by the prophet is how do we define a relationship with the Divine — who fills up the entirety of existence, including us, with His presence; and in the same breath, imagine that each one of us is separate from God.
The opening scene of this week’s parashat Vayetzei — the story of Jacob’s ladder — explores how our ancestors related to the Divine. The parashah opens with Jacob fleeing his family home after having wrested the birthright blessing from his brother Esau, who threatened to kill him. Jacob goes to sleep; and has a dream in which he sees a ladder “reaching” toward the heavens with angels ascending and descending. When he awakens, he realizes that God had been there, as Jacob recites:
“Surely, Adonai is in this place and I did not know it.”
Many rabbinic commentaries expressly locate this episode in Jerusalem where both Temples stood. Their underlying agenda: the holiest site in the world can draw Jacob there and demand that he pay attention.
That God is more available in certain places like a ‘Jerusalem’ than in others, has deep roots within our tradition. Whether it was the Mishkan in the desert; or its modern counterparts: a synagogue sanctuary or the grave of a loved one — these places are known to us as being “intrinsically holy.”
On the other hand, the idea that the Divine could be available to us anywhere, and at any time, is often felt to be a foreign concept.
Yet the same rabbis who were so impressed with the natural holiness of Jerusalem, were equally in awe of the most mundane methods of an individual’s relating to God. The recitation of the Shema was the only prayer mandated by Torah. Yet, the rabbis had no problem in allowing you to recite it while riding your donkey without dismounting. And if the donkey was traveling away from Jerusalem, no problem: provided you “directed your heart to the idea of the Temple.” When it comes to unlocking God’s heart, a holy location takes a back seat to the human heart.
Other interpretations of the story of Jacob’s ladder abound and confirm the greater holiness that Judaism attaches to the individual over the location. For example, when a person sets out on a spiritual journey, at the beginning their “support” comes from an awareness that they have a “personal ladder planted in the ground,” in this real world. And a holy location only comes into play at a much later time as they hope one day to “reach,” as does Jacob’s ladder, “to the heavens.”
Like the ladder, we are products of this physical world—with bodies and thoughts, planted in this world. And bounded by the limitations identified by science. And, in the same breath, the head of our ladder “reaches” to the heavens, and we can transcend these limitations.
Through our embrace of both the physical world of science, and the deeper reality concealed within it — the ‘mystery,’ we become the means by which the Divine is ‘present’ in the world. We “ascend” like the angels ascending on the ladder beyond the limitations of the physical, science world to try to touch the Divine. And we then “descend”, bringing that experience back with us, to fill the world (again, like the angels). And with that understanding, one can see that God is working through us, and hence, every moment is filled with the Divine.
We inherited the cultural DNA from our ancestor Jacob, a young person setting out and spending his first night away from home. Upon awakening, that DNA led Jacob to discover that, indeed, at any time and at any place, there can be a moment of experiencing the Divine in our lives — if we can only open our hearts to the possibility.
Are there “special” places you consider particularly holy?
How did they become holy for you?
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom!
Rav Julius Rabinowitz