“But will God in very truth dwell on earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!” (Kings I, 8:27) This verse comprises part of King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It, as well as the second Holy Temple built by Ezra and the Jewish people on their return to Israel from exile in Persia, was built on the very site of our forefather, Yaakov’s dream, described at the outset of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei. The historical fact of these two Temples, built in that very spot on the Temple Mount, are on their own enough evidence for any honest investigator to refute modern claims or doubts to the contrary.
From this biblical verse we also hear the astonishment of constructing such a house, a house for God, in the voice of King Solomon. Fundamental to Judaism is the idea of the existence of one, non-physical God of the universe. Maimonides’s son, Abraham, a great Torah scholar in his own right, comments, “it is known and clear that God, praised be He, is not a body and has no relationship to earth.” Surely, King Solomon embraced this concept, yet he expresses the same reaction Yaakov expressed when he awoke from his prophetic dream.
“And Yaakov awakened from his sleep, and he said, ‘Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’ And he was overawed, and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yaakov arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that was under his head and set it up as a monument and poured oil on top of it. And he named the place Beit El, “the house of God…” (Bereshit 28:16-19)
What was so perplexing to Yaakov and King Solomon is the question all thinkers have. How does God relate to a place? How is that possible? What does it mean? Maimonides, when presenting the laws of the Temple in his The Laws of the Chosen House, 2:2, mentions the historical facts associated with the site of the Temple:
“It is universally accepted that the place on which David and Solomon built the altar, is the location where Abraham built the altar on which he prepared to sacrifice Isaac, Noah had built an altar when he left the ark. It was the place that Cain and Able brought their sacrifices. Similarly, Adam, the first man offered a sacrifice there and he was created from that very spot.”
Yet, until Yaakov, no one ever designated “that place” as “the house of God.” Do we maintain that prayer can only be offered at “that place,” or that one is actually closer to God by standing in “that place?” Avraham, son of Maimonides, is 100% correct when he states, “God is not a body, He does not occupy space, He has no location and has no relationship to earth.” But he answers this apparent contradiction by saying, “However, even as this is so, God, praised be He, isolates certain places for His honor.” A new and wondrous idea about God and His relationship to mankind was introduced to Yaakov in his prophetic dream.
The short “skinny” of Yaakov’s prophetic dream was that God’s divine providence would henceforth be with Yaakov and the nation that would descend from his children. That means certain events will take place on earth for his descendants that will insure the success of God’s will. These events demonstrate, in undeniable and concrete fashion, the truthfulness of God’s providence. God did not create the world and then abandon it, leaving it to go on its merry way. No! God rules the universe and earth as well.
Now, as my good friend Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe explains on his Torah website (www.mesora.org/theladder), it is essential that mankind have a reference point for this concept, the idea of God’s providence. Even though our forefathers did not need a marker to be convinced of God’s divine providence, the overwhelming majority of humanity does. Additional historical and perhaps personal sites of God’s providence exist. When we see such a place, we must give praise and thanks to God for what that took place there. This halakhic obligation confirms the need in man for such reminders of God’s providence.
Such a place is not differentiated by “spirituality,” as that notion of a place having a higher or greater spirituality is false. All physical entities are purely physical, containing no add-mixture of the meta-physical (beyond the physical) or what people call “spiritual.” Physical and spiritual (outside the realm of physical) entities are differentiated qualitatively, essentially. One parcel of land, the land of Israel for example, in its physical makeup is comprised of the same elements listed on the periodic table of elements as is any other parcel of land on earth. All physical objects are unrelated to any idea of spirituality. To maintain otherwise is the sin of pantheism, whereby people project fantasies of divinity onto the physical world, be it in the form of other people, places, or things.
Yaakov’s reaction, and that expressed later by King Solomon, was conveying his excitement that God has chosen of necessity, “a place,” a primary location to teach and concretize for mankind the ideas of God’s providence, and that His providence can relate to every individual. By stepping on and ascending the metaphorical ladder through actual growth in knowledge and honing proper actions, our relationship to the one, non-physical God of the universe is changed and enhanced. Designating “a place” in the world where such an actual occurrence of divine providence took place, is the “honor to God,” that Avraham, son of Maimonides alluded to in his commentary. An actual “place,” makes firm in our minds the veracity of this important and fundamental principle of Judaism. But God’s interaction with people is not confined to any “place” notwithstanding that “the place” can give one added inspiration.
To emphasize this idea for all future humanity, Yaakov anoints the rock under his head, the very site of this prophetic and philosophic insight he received directly from God. When King Solomon concludes his inauguration of the first Holy Temple on that same spot in Jerusalem where Yaakov had his prophetic dream he prays,
“Moreover concerning the stranger that is not of Your people Israel, when they shall come out of a far country for Your name’s sake, for they shall hear of Your great name and of Your mighty hand and of Your outstretched arm, when he shall come and pray toward this house, hear Thou in heaven Your dwelling place and do according to all that the stranger calls to You for; that all the peoples of the earth may know your name, to have awe of You as do Your people Israel and that they may know that Your name is called upon this house which I have built.” (Kings I, 8: 41-44)
“For My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah, 56:7)
So may it be their will. Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan