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The "House of the Lord" and the "Gate of Heaven"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The "House of the Lord" and the "Gate of Heaven"

Summarized by David Tee

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And he feared and said, 'How awesome this place is; this can only be the House of the Lord, and this is the gate of heaven." (Bereishit 28:17)

The Ramban explains that Yaakov is referring here to two separate places: the "house of the Lord" and the "gateway to heaven." (One refers to Be'er Sheva and the other to Jerusalem, or one to Jerusalem and the other to Beit-El.) But other Rishonim maintain that there is only one place, representing both the "house of God" and the "gateway to heaven." Rashi comments: "This refers to the Temple, which is the gateway from which prayers and sacrifices ascend." Ibn Ezra concurs.

Let us examine this issue of the "gateway to heaven" and see whether it is an independent entity, standing alone, separate and disconnected from the concept of "house," or whether it is very closely bound up with the "house."

This question is reminiscent of the mitzva of placing a mezuza on the doorpost, where we are told: "And you shall write them on the doorposts of your home and on your gates" - both house and gate are mentioned. Indeed, the Rishonim are divided as to whether one is obligated to place a mezuza on one's gate even if it does not serve as part of the "house" (e.g., the gate of a courtyard in which there is no house), or whether it is specifically on the gate (entrance) of the house itself that the obligation applies. In any event, all agree that there is a strong connection between the gate and the house, and when a mezuza is affixed it must be on the part of the doorpost on the inside of the house.

The significance of this distinction is more than purely halakhic. There is also a profound and fundamental spiritual concept at stake.

There are philosophies which understand Godliness as something transcendental, very distant - God lives in Heaven with no connection to the material, corporeal and loathsome earth. In contrast, there are other philosophies which regard God as being immanent, extremely near, like a person's best friend - God is in the world and the world is God. This approach identifies God with nature.

Judaism completely rejects both approaches. We believe that "God encompasses the world; the world does not encompass God." At the same time, though, God is near to us and watches over us constantly.

Heaven is not disconnected from earth: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Also, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" - there is no separation between God on earth and God in heaven; He is all One. The relationship between the transcendental God and the immanent God is self-contradictory. On one hand, it is completely impossible to grasp the essence of God, who fills the entire world with His glory and whose domain is the heavens above and the earth below. On the other hand, we pray towards the Beit Ha-mikdash - the house where God's presence dwells, only on earth!

This contradiction is highlighted in Shlomo's prayer: "Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, the highest heavens cannot contain You, how much more so this house which I have built!" (Melakhim I 8:27). Nevertheless, Shlomo asserts: "I have surely built You a heavenly mansion, a dwelling for Your eternal abode."

The key to solving the dilemma is to be found in our parasha: "This can only be the house of the Lord, and this is the gate of heaven." True, this place represents an awesome contraction of God - "the house of God." God's immanence is in the world, "contracted" into a house. On the other hand, this place is "the gateway to heaven." This very same house is the gateway to the transcendental God, beyond our grasp, "in the heavens above."

We may understand the mitzva of affixing a mezuza in the same way. When we enter a house, we are not to disconnect ourselves from the Godly reality of nature outside. Upon entering, at the gate, we fulfill the mitzva of mezuza, which points to God's presence within the house too.

This perception is not limited to any particular mitzva, but rather reflects an all-encompassing view of the world, as expressed by Chazal:

"This world resembles a corridor [i.e., the entrance]; the World-to-Come resembles a hall [i.e., the house]. Prepare yourself in the corridor so that you will be able to enter the hall." (Avot 4:1)

It is not only the Beit Ha-mikdash that represents the "house of God" and "gateway to heaven." The entire world is in fact a "house of God" - "Better one hour of Torah study in this world than all of eternal life in the World-to-Come," meaning, this world is also an end in itself. At the same time, it is no more than a gateway - a corridor - to the World-to-Come.

From the above we must draw conclusions regarding our everyday lives. The Torah is directing us to act in a paradoxical manner. We must see God in our world, marvel at the miracles of nature - "How great are Your works, O God" - and feel God's presence in our lives here, in every place and at every moment - the perception of immanence. This is the "house of God."

At the same time, let us not forget that our world is only a window, an opening to another world. Here we perceive ourselves as standing only at the "gate of heaven," the transcendental, heavenly world, distant from us, and God as being "whom human thought cannot grasp at all."

(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayetze 5750 [1989].)



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