Place is central to our most important Jewish dream. That singular dream is recounted at our Passover Seders: L’shanah habaah b’yerushalyim—next year in Jerusalem. And now, as the Psalmist sings, we are in fact like dreamers who have returned to Zion. We can in a matter of hours touch the land that our ancestors only saw in their mind’s eye and sang about in their prayers.
Vayetzei begins that dreaming. Jacob arrived at the place. And he dreamed of a ladder reaching toward heaven. And God reiterated to him the promise that the land on which he was lying will be assigned to him and his offspring. Today his dream has become real. Yama—West—becomes Tel Aviv. Tzafona—North—is now Haifa. Our dreams are now real places.
For millennia this was not the case.
The rabbis of old were forced to fashion Judaism out of the embers of a destroyed Jerusalem. Long ago we did not offer prayers in the morning, afternoon and evening. Instead we offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. And when that was destroyed, and our people exiled from our land and banished from our holy city, place became only the stuff of dreams. They said we can offer prayers wherever we might find ourselves. We pray shacharit, minhah and maariv. In the morning, afternoon and evening we can say, Baruch Ata Adonai… When the Torah commanded sacrifice it became instead our obligation to recite the Amidah.
The rabbis went further. They wrote that our forefathers instituted these prayers. Abraham was the first to pray shacharit. Isaac minhah. And this week, Jacob institutes the maariv prayers. “Jacob came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.” (Genesis 28) They argued as well that he did not arrive at a place, but instead came upon God. Va’yifgah ba’makom—he came upon a certain place is reinterpreted. Hamakom, literally the place, is one of the rabbis’ names for God.
Think of the words we still offer to mourners: HaMakom yenachem et’chem b’toch shar avay’lay Tzion vee’Yerushalayim. May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The place is no longer made of this earth but is instead a matter of faith.
And thus in a bold example of rabbinic imagination place was transformed from something that was no longer under our feet, or even something that can be seen, but instead into a dream, an idea. The place can be carried in our hearts. Hamakom, God, can be held onto wherever we might find ourselves. In the grandest of sites and the most ordinary of locations we can find God. Jacob declares: “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” That is the insight the rabbis offer. No matter how tall the building, no matter how ordinary the locale, God is present, forever and always.
That is the genius of our tradition. Our rabbis understood that ideas can sustain us, that beliefs can carry a people. But fear turns that upside down. It tends to lead us away from ideals and instead toward the comfort of place and in our own day, to the familiarity of steel and concrete. We are afraid to wander the streets without a tall building lighting the way. “We will rebuild” becomes our refrain after each and every attack. Rebuild so that no one will think we are beaten, so that we will not come to believe we have failed.
But terrorism is a matter of the heart. Its strategic threat is directed inward. It only succeeds if it hardens the heart; it can only claim victory if we allow ourselves to become terrorized.
Jacob too was afraid. He was running away from his brother Esau who had pledged to kill him. He is alone in the wilderness. And yet he dreams. Despite his understandable fears, vayachalom, he dreams. He imagines a ladder reaching toward heaven. He discovers God. There, in the cold of the desert evening, he finds God. His fear is transformed into awe. “Mah norah hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place!” How magnificent is God, Jacob discovers. Dreams offer the secret. Imagination suggests a cure. There is a ladder beseeching us to climb.
There is much to be afraid of in today’s world. There is the continuing threat of terrorism. There are already too many events to recount. The recent massacre in Pittsburgh continue to reverberate in our hearts. We have learned that oceans no longer guarantee our safety. Where we once thought we were immune, antisemitism grows more lethal. It reaches our cities. It finds its way into our college campuses. Israel no longer appears a safe haven.
We cannot build walls. Perfect security is an illusion. Instead it is our dreams that must animate us; not our homes; not even our synagogue buildings. They are all but tools to create meaning and bring healing. We fear for our Jewish survival. Jewish continuity is a buzzword of yesterday. Does the cry of the “ever-dying” people still motivate us? Now our synagogues must become destinations for meaning and healing.
We should take a cue from the rabbis of old. Synagogues must reimagine place. We must re-envision how we construct space. We must rediscover our dreams.
There is a Jewish dream that continues to animate me. It is dream that Torah can add meaning to our lives, that Torah can better our world. We must reimagine our future. It must become a future less centered on the buildings of yesterday and more on dreams and ideals. The Torah can be carried. It can be opened. It can be studied. It can be debated. The Torah can guide us and light the way.
I need not look up to the heavens; I need not look for a tower to lead me. Instead I can look onto the pages of my book. I can unfurl my people’s sacred scroll. I can marvel at the words that have sustained generations of Jews. And then regardless of where I find myself, whether in a beautiful sanctuary, a cluttered office or beside a tranquil stream, I can exclaim, “How awesome is this place!” No longer will I measure grandeur by the height of towers or even by the number of synagogue members but instead by the vibrancy within our walls and the learning that emanates from our doors.
“Mah norah hamakom hazeh! How awesome is this place!” Indeed how awesome is this God.
Terror can be banished by dreams. Fear can be exiled by imagination.