The Torah mixes her metaphors, moving from “ladder” to “house” to “gate.” The place Jacob encounters affords him an overwhelming experience. In his sleep he dreams that the earth upon which he lies is the grounding for a ladder that leads up to heaven. When he awakes, he exclaims “How awesome is this place. It is none other than the House of the Almighty and this is Heaven’s gate.” (Gen. 28:17)
A house is a closed-in structure, an abode for settlement and repose. But a gate is an opening that allows one to pass from one area to another. Furthermore, a ladder is a vertical means of movement while a gate is usually a door leading to – or preventing – horizontal movement. We are meant to see the place that Jacob “encounters” (v. 11) as both an enclosure and a passageway. It is God’s House as well as a gateway, or a ladder, leading to Heaven.
If this place, here, on earth, is God’s House, then we must understand that God lives here, on earth. That God’s House is in this place is grasped by Jacob, who has no house of his own at this moment. He says, “Indeed, God is in this place and I have not really known.” (v. 16) It is precisely – and, perhaps, only – at this unsettled moment of homelessness that Jacob can apprehend God’s Presence, that this place is God’s home.
But if God is here, what need is there for a gate to Heaven? It is needed because Jacob cannot remain and permanently dwell in God’s home as God’s guest or partner. This is not to be, at least not yet. Jacob knows that he must move on. The safe enclosure that the House represents cannot hold him. He cannot remain inside it. He has encountered the place, God’s own Home, but he cannot stay; he must pass through it. Does that mean he must leave it behind, abandoned?
If he cannot remain inside it, then what need is there for such a Divine Home? Immediately Jacob sees: What if this enclosure is not a final rest stop, but a waystation, a gateway? Jacob senses that God’s abiding in this place is not meant to stop him and cancel his journey. It is for the sake of helping him to move on – and not just to move along, but to move upward, higher, upwards to Heaven. A house is a limited, enclosed space. But Heaven is an unlimited expanse. In his forward motion along his earthly path Jacob will often lose any sense of being in God’s House. But he will remember the dream of a passageway to Heaven, that the finite house of God – whether cozy or magnificent – is really a gate to infinite Presence, and that he can enter that gate when he is ready.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein