Allen S. Maller

Your holy place in Israel

The Land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, and the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are for most Jews, and for hundreds of millions of Christians, holy places. Midrash is a creative expansion of a Biblical text in order to see deeper aspects within Holy Scripture than just the literal meaning. Midrash Rabba to Numbers chapter 12 says, “No place in the Land of Israel is empty of God’s presence/Shekinah.”

Indeed, one can say that God is present in every place that people let God enter their hearts or minds. Thus Midrash Mekhilta says “In every place where Israel was exiled; the Shekinah went with them.”

So the Rabbis taught that when the Jewish people no longer lived in the Holy Land the Shekinah went with them and dwelt where they dwelt. Does this mean that place is much less important than community, personal experience and interpersonal relationships?

“People are happy when they dwell in their own place” (Jerusalem Talmud Mo’ed Katan) Does this mean home? Homeland? Comfort zone? Identity? Faith? Family?

When Jacob, fleeing from Esau, dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth he says, “How awesome is this place…it is a gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) At the burning bush God tells Moses, “the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

Before the battle against Jericho, Joshua encounters a spiritual warrior who tells him, “Take off your sandals, the place where you are standing is holy.”(Joshua 5:15)

The Jerusalem Temple of course is a holy place (Ezekiel 42:13) for all Jews, but what made a place holy for an individual like Jacob, Moses or Joshua?

Many Jews have a place where they feel a heightened sense of Jewishness or a special closeness to God. Usually this experience takes place at a special point in time, for Jewish spirituality exists more in time and in relationships than in space. But for some people a place can also be holy.

Rabbi Yohanan bar Nappaha said, “Pray in a place set aside for prayer.” Is a sanctuary a holy place for you? Nature? Music? The founder of the 18th century Hassidic movement, The Baal Shem Tov said, “One can pray everywhere.”

Rabbi Yose ben Halafta said, “I never called my wife ‘wife’. I always refer to her as my home/place.” Can your wife or your family become your holy place?

“Let your home be a meeting place for the Sages (rabbis)” (Avot 1:4) The Rabbis say that when people sit together and study Torah the Shekhinah (God’s presence) dwells among them. Have you ever felt spiritual joy in a place of Jewish study?

Finally, there is a place in the Torah where one can find a holy place; a ladder connecting earth with heaven (Genesis 28:17) where Jacob, fleeing for his life from Esau, dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth he says, “How awesome is this place…it is the gate of heaven.”.

The Rabbis always rejoiced when MANY different lessons could be drawn from God’s words. Every verse they taught has 70 potential different interpretations. For example: The ladder Jacob saw was not as object. It was a metaphor of how we connect with God in any place.

Thus it can represent any and every religious service. When our prayers are sung our words ascend to heaven. When a Sacred Scripture is read God’s inspired words descend to earth.

The ladder symbolizes Israel. When Jewish people are filled with Torah and Mitsvot they rise. When they are filled with self righteousness and selfishness they sink.

The ladder represented Jacob according to Rabbi Yannai. Jacob had ups and downs; strengths and failures. Now he learned that flawed as he was he could still receive God’s blessing and be in God’s presence even if he didn’t yet know it at that time and place.

Jacob saw a ladder not an escalator. You have to exert yourself to reach heaven. Rising doesn’t come without effort. No strain, no gain.

The rabbis said the ladder represents Sinai. Moses, Aaron and 70 of the elders of Israel ascend Sinai and experience God (Exodus 24:9-11). Before that God had descended on mount Sinai (Exodus 19:20) and was revealed. Only at Sinai does God act first. Now we are like the angels who have to ascend first.

Jacob saw a ladder not a leader. Teachers, sages and holy men can help, but you have to do your own climbing. A loving wife or husband is the best ladder. But you can not just always remain ‘in place’. “A human must either climb up or climb down.” Talmud: Erubin 21a

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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