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Parashat Vayetze: "And this is the Gate to Heaven"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion

by Rav Itamar Eldar


Parshat Vayetze:

"And this is the Gate to heaven"


            In this week's parasha, we read how Ya'akov Avinu sets out into "exile" in a foreign land for an unknown period of time.


            Crouching at the door of every departure into exile is the danger of long-term settlement. Such was the case when Ya'akov set out for Charan; his mother, Rivka, described his departure as "for a few days" (Bereishit 27:44), but in the end he stayed in the house of Lavan for twenty years. The same thing happened when Ya'akov and his sons went down to Egypt "for the days of the famine," but ended up falling into the deep pit of the Egyptian exile. We ourselves see today how sometimes a short stay outside of Israel turns into permanent settlement in the Diaspora.


            Before he leaves the land of Israel, Ya'akov Avinu merits to experience his first revelation of the Divine which comes to him in the form of a dream:


And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzchak: the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places to which you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of (Bereishit 28:11-15).


            When Yitzchak was forced to move because of famine, he too merited a Divine revelation (Bereishit 26:1-5). And Ya'akov himself, when he left Eretz Israel a second time to go down to Egypt to see his son Yosef, once again merited a Divine revelation, in which he was promised that God would return him to his former place (Bereishit 46:4).


            The major difference between the revelation described in our parasha and these other two revelations finds expression in Ya'akov's reaction in our parasha:


And Ya'akov awoke out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Bereishit 28:16-17).


            It would appear from these verses that Ya'akov was quite surprised not by the content of the revelation, but by the very fact that God had appeared to him. Ya'akov's reaction, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not… This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven," raises a series of questions. Did Ya'akov harbor any doubts about God being present in all places? Does the fact that God revealed Himself to one of the patriarchs in a particular place turn the site of that revelation into "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven"? Is Charan, the place where God appeared to Avraham for the first time, also "the house of God"? And what about Be'er-Sheva (Bereishit 26:24)? Or Ma'avar Yabok (Bereishit 32:28)?


            The void left by Scripture that is responsible for these questions is filled by the midrashim and biblical commentaries that try to reach the depth of understanding that Ya'akov attained in the wake of the dream of the ladder.[1] Chassidic thinkers delved deeply into the matter as well.


"Akiva, you have consoled us"


            One of the difficulties that shape the various interpretations relates to the place where Ya'akov dreamt his dream. The verses states: "And Ya'akov went out from Be'er-Sheva, and went toward Charan. And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set." What is the "place" referred to in this passage?


            On the one hand, it would seem that Ya'akov dreamt his dream as he left Be'er-Sheva, and so the place should be near that city.


            On the other hand, "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven" point in the direction of Jerusalem.


            In contrast to these two possibilities stands Ya'akov's "calling the name of the place Bet-El; but the name of that place was Luz at first" (v. 19). This suggests a third place, in addition to the two previous possibilities.


            This difficulty led Chazal to the following derasha, cited by Rashi in his commentary:


"This is no other than the house of God" – R. Elazar said in the name of R. Yose ben Zimra: This ladder stood in Be'er-Sheva and [the middle of] its slope reached opposite the Temple. For Be'er-Sheva is situated in the south of Yehuda, Jerusalem in the north of it on the boundary between Yehuda and Binyamin, and Bet-El in the north of Binyamin's territory, on the border between the land of Binyamin and that of the children of Yosef. It follows, therefore, that a ladder whose foot is in Be'er-Sheva and whose top is in Bet-El has the middle of its slope reaching opposite Jerusalem. Now as regards what our Rabbis stated that the Holy One, blessed be He, said: "This righteous man has come to the place where I dwell, and shall he depart without staying here over night?" and with regard to what they also said: "Jacob gave the name Bet-El to Jerusalem," whereas this place which he called Bet-El was Luz and not Jerusalem, whence did they learn to make this statement? I say that Mount Moriya was forcibly removed from its locality and came here [to Luz] and this is what is meant by the "shrinking" of the ground that is mentioned in tractate Chullin – that the site of the Temple came towards him as far as Bet-El and this too is what is meant by "he lighted upon the place." (Rashi, ad loc.)


            This interpretation greatly "lengthens" Ya'akov's ladder, or else it severely "shortens" Eretz Israel. In any event, it attempts to locate Ya'akov in all three places: Be'er-Sheva, Jerusalem, and Bet-El.


            This suggestion, however, fails to account for the strange formulation of Ya'akov's words. The expression "this is no other than" implies the rejection of some other possibility – if you thought that this place is X, it is no other than Y.


            R. Yisrael Hapstein, the Rebbe of Kozienice, relates to this possibility:


This is alluded to in this verse: "And Ya'akov awoke [vayikatz] out of his sleep… And he was afraid." That is, when he contemplated the length of the destruction of the second [Temple], fear and dread fell upon him, saying, When will we come to the end [ketz]? "And he said, This is no other than the house of God." That is, he was consoled by the fact that evidently the destruction is preparation for the [future] Temple that will be called [God's] permanent residence for all time. In accordance with the light of the redemption, so the destruction. It is for this reason that the destruction continues for such a long time and does not [seem to] end, to teach that the future redemption will enjoy clarity and have no end or termination (Avodat Yisra'el,[2] Vayetze)


            R. Hapstein describes Ya'akov's journey to Charan as a journey into exile. Ya'akov had received the blessing of Avraham, but yet was forced to leave the promised land and return to the land which Avraham had previously departed. This is going into exile, and Ya'akov with his spiritual insight sees how ma'ase avot siman la-banim, "like father, like son." His historical consciousness goes well beyond his personal circumstances. Ya'akov, who knows that he bears Avraham's blessing, asks himself how it is that the recipient of the promise is being forced to leave and flee, whereas he who had been banished and rejected, in this case Esav, sits peacefully in his place.


            This question troubles Ya'akov on the historical level, for if he is being forced into exile despite the promise, shouldn't his descendants be destined to a similar fate? Will there be a return from this exile? And if so, when? These questions bother him not necessarily in relation to his personal fate, but in the context of the realization of the Divine promise.


            The sleep of the tzadik, asserts the Rebbe of Kozienice, symbolizes the sleep of the nation, the despair and skepticism that develop in the face of the tortuous exile. Ya'akov's dream - which contains the elements of ascent and descent, exile and redemption, sin and repair, at the top of all of which stands God, and, in addition, the Divine promise, "And I will keep you in all places to which you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of" (Bereishit 28:15) – teaches Ya'akov an important lesson about exile. This lesson does not exhaust itself in the optimistic recognition that the exile will come to an end, but rather it embodies a much more profound understanding: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" relates to the exile and the Temple's destruction.


An ordinary person reflects upon the exile and the Temple's destruction and sees in them the total opposite of the house of God and the gate of heaven. A house in ruins and removal from the gate – these are the ideas that he associates with the destruction, and these are the ideas with which Ya'akov Avinu went to sleep. But suddenly Ya'akov is enlightened: "And Ya'akov awoke out of his sleep"! Ya'akov's dream, explains the Rebbe of Kozienice, brought him to deeper reflection on "this" exile and destruction. Ya'akov understands that it is in the exile itself that the seeds of redemption are sown.


There is a full correlation between the afflictions of the exile and the light of the redemption. Each calamity, each misfortune, each wandering imposed upon Israel in the exile, constitutes another stone in the house of God that is in the process of being built. "This is no other than," explains the Rebbe of Kozienice, refers to the exile and destruction, which are no longer exile and destruction, but rather the house of God that is in the process of being built.


This will prove to be true both with respect to Ya'akov's specific situation and in historical perspective. Ya'akov's years of exile are the years during which he builds the house of Israel – two matriarchs, twelve tribes, much property, manservants and maidservants ­– all these together constitute the house that was built in the exile. As the afflictions came in greater succession and the passing years grew in number, so the process of constructing the building continued.


            This is also true in historical perspective:


Again it happened that [Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva] went up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus, they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed. They said to him: "Why are you laughing?" He answered: "Why are you weeping?" They said to him: "A place [so holy] that it is said of it, 'The stranger that approaches it shall die,' and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn't weep?" He said to them: "That is why I laugh. For it is written: 'I shall have bear witness for Me faithful witnesses - Uriya the Priest and Zekharya the son of Yevarekhya.' Now what is the connection between Uriya and Zekharya? Uriya was [in the time of] the first Temple, and Zekharya was [in the time of] the second Temple! But Scripture makes Zekharya's prophecy dependent upon Uriya's prophecy. With Uriya, it is written: 'Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest].' With Zekharya it is written: 'Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.' As long as Uriya's prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zekharya's prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriya's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zekharya's prophecy will be fulfilled." With these words they replied to him: "Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!" (Makkot 24b)


            R. Akiva sees the Temple in ruins, and with his ability to see deep into the future, he succeeds in saying about the fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." R. Akiva is able to see not only that the destruction will eventually come to an end, but that the destruction itself serves as the foundation for the house that is in the process of being built.


            Similar meaning is attached to Ya'akov's words, albeit with different emphases, in the following passage:


And when God, blessed be He, saw that Ya'akov had ceased contemplating the supreme unity because of the great distress of the Shekhina and the seed of Israel, He consoled him with the promise: "I am the Lord God of Avraham your father… to you will I give it." That is, whatever you are lying upon and worrying about, I will certainly give it to you and to your seed. "I am with you, and will keep you…." That is, even when they are in exile, I will be with them and keep them. "And I will bring you back to this land." That is, "I will bring back their captivity, and gather their dispersed from the end of heaven. "Until I have done that which I have spoken to you of. And Ya'akov awoke out of his sleep." That is, out of the aspect of sleep, i.e., the removal of thought owing to the great distress, as stated above. He strengthened himself and said: "Surely the Lord… and I knew it not." That is, "I had imagined that, God forbid, God, blessed be he, would abandon them there in their exile, and they would be left, God forbid, without His providence, blessed be He. But now I truly see that even His Shekhina is with them in exile, and He will certainly not remove the eye of His providence from them. "This is no other than the house of God" – because the Shekhina is also with them, and He will certainly remember them for good and redeem them. Ya'akov then returned to his earlier thoughts and communion. (Ohev Yisra'el,[3] Vayetze)


            R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Rebbe of Apta, interprets Ya'akov's words as a question regarding God's presence in the exile. In this respect, the words of the Rebbe of Apta go even further than those of the Rebbe of Kozienice cited above. For according to the latter, "the house of God" and "the gate to heaven" refer to the Temple; Ya'akov's insight is that exile contributes to their fashioning and building. According to the Rebbe of Apta, on the other hand, "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven" are the exile itself; what Ya'akov comes to understand is that the Divine presence is found there as well.[4]


            According to the Rebbe of Apta, Ya'akov's dream is a novel experience for him – less in the content and more in the very appearance of God. Ya'akov goes into exile, but nevertheless the Shekhina does not abandon him.[5] Also the message that "I will not leave you" brings Ya'akov to the new understanding that the Shekhina will not leave Israel even when they go into exile, and that everywhere that Israel will be exiled, the Shekhina will go into exile with them.


            Ya'akov understands that "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven" are not geographical places but spiritual readiness. Wherever Israel is found – it is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. The dramatic change that the Rebbe of Apta identifies in Ya'akov's words, according to which the idea of the revelation of the Shekhina is moved from place to the soul, i.e., from Eretz Israel to the people of Israel, is based on the kabbalistic principle appearing in the Zohar that "no place is void of Him." Borrowing the wording of the Rebbe of Kotzk, we can say: "Where is the Shekhina found? Wherever it is given permission to enter."


Sacred and profane


            The Shekhina's presence, according to the Rebbe of Apta, does not depend upon the place, but upon the person. This is the first step in the chassidic journey to greater awareness of the presence of the Divine in the world. R. David Shlomo Eibenschutz, the Rebbe of Soroki, writes as follows:


Now, Ya'akov Avinu, may he rest in peace, who had been fourteen years in the house of Shem and Ever and had day and night engaged in Torah study - as Rashi writes: "And he lay down in that place," but all those [fourteen] years he did not sleep, because he was engaged in Torah [study]) – was at all times conjoined to God, blessed be He, and he had never yet involved himself in material things, and he had never yet attempted to draw the Shekhina to material things. Afterwards, as he was going from there to the house of Lavan, when he walked about outside among people and saw how they were engaged in externalities, he thought that this did not contain any holiness. And he was distressed by the fact that his travel was causing him to give up on his diligence, as we see that he lay down there, which was not the case all those years. Therefore, God, blessed be He, showed him that [man's] external activities constitute a ladder set up on the earth, but its top reaches to heaven. This is the combination of "You are my hiding place from trouble," this combination serving as protection from all evil, for the evil turns into good, and the Shekhina is drawn there as well… This is "And he was afraid," i.e., he drew fear and awe upon himself, saying: "How dreadful is this place," that is to say, this level is dreadful, for it is a dangerous road, because "this is no other than the house of God," [the words] "the house" being precise. For it is not like one who is engaged in Torah study, who is conjoined, as it were, to the king himself. Here, however, he is only on the level of "the house of God." (Arvei Nachal,[6] Vayetze).


            The Rebbe of Soroki refers to the midrash which describes how Ya'akov Avinu had spent fourteen years in the bet midrash of Shem and Ever studying Torah. Ya'akov's leaving the bet midrash for Charan is not destruction or exile, but nevertheless it involves a sharp transition from the holy to the profane. Ya'akov Avinu, while in the house of Lavan, will have to work for a living, tend sheep, and deal with the other shepherds. From this perspective, the transition from the bet midrash to the profane world is a radical and immeasurable change.


            Ya'akov's dream teaches him that while it is true that the world into which he is being cast is not a bet midrash, it is nevertheless the house of God. R. David Shlomo Eibenschutz distinguishes between cleaving to the Shekhina itself and dwelling in the house of God, the latter being more external, something clothed in more garments. The ladder upon which the angels ascend and descend teaches Ya'akov that it is possible to draw holiness down from the top of the ladder to its bottom. After having woken up from his dream, Ya'akov sets out on the road with the new understanding that God is found even in the mundane realities of the world. But he also sets out with a sense of mission; it will be his task in the coming years to expose God's presence in the profane world.


            Every profane situation contains an aspect of "exile," but also Divine presence. Here the idea that "everywhere that Israel is exiled, the Shekhina goes into exile with them" assumes more profound significance. Any place where a Jew meets the real world is a place in which the Shekhina is found. The task falling upon man is to expose the Shekhina, to draw it to every aspect of the world that surrounds him, and thereby to elevate the world up the ladder to the place where God is standing.


Torah and prayer


            In all the teachings that we have thus far seen, the tension in which Ya'akov finds himself is the tension between holy and profane, redemption and exile, and his dream teaches him that this tension is less polar than he had imagined. These teachings embody the ideas of "sweetening the exile" and "sanctifying the profane." On the one hand, this is consoling to man, but on the other hand, it is demanding of him; he must expose and reveal, and not fall into deep sleep. Ya'akov's dream teaches him that he must not relate to the world into which he has been cast as a state of "sleep" in which he may relax, since in any event there is no chance that it will bring him to spiritual achievements. Just the opposite is true! He must harness this tension to expose the word of God, who stands not only above the ascending angels, but above the descending angels as well.


            There are those who try to convert the aforementioned tension into tension of an entirely different sort. Thus, R. Kalonymus Kalman ha-Levi Epstein of Cracow writes:


"And he dreamed, and behold, etc. And Ya'akov awoke out of his sleep (mi-shenato), and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not, etc. This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The midrash states: "And Ya'akov woke out of his study (mi-mishnato)." This is puzzling. It may be explained as follows: It is known that man's task of reaching the utmost perfection in his service [of God], blessed be His name, and comprehending His Divinity is primarily [performed] by way of Torah [study] and prayer. You cannot have the one without the other, for "an ignoramus cannot be pious." Nor can one perfect his soul with Torah alone, as our Sages have stated: "Whoever say there is nothing but Torah has no Torah." For there is no question that by way of Torah study for its own sake a person can come to great holiness when he learns for its own sake and attaches himself - his nefesh, ru'ach and neshama – to the letters of the Torah. But, nevertheless, he can only come to the fear and love [of God], to a yearning for His service, blessed be His name, and to a comprehension of his Divinity, by way of prayer with devotion and excitement, as in known from all the holy books. We all know the dictum of our Sages, of blessed memory: "'And he lighted on a certain place' – he enacted the evening prayer." Until now he did know the secret of prayer, how great it is. We find that Ya'akov hid in the bet midrash of Shem and Ever, and studied Torah, and so he knew the secrets of the Torah. But he did not experience the revelation of God's Divinity, blessed be His name, until now, when God revealed himself to Ya'akov after he understood the secret of prayer. This is the meaning of the midrash, "And Ya'akov awoke out of his sleep – out of his study," that is to say, out of his Torah. It was through this prayer that he awoke and understood that he had not reached the highest comprehension by way of Torah alone. And he said, "Surely, there is the Lord in this place," that is to say, through this prayer he was able to reach a greater understanding of Divine revelation than he was able to reach thus far through Torah [study] alone. "And I knew it not" – this secret. "This is no other than the house of God," that is to say, through prayer with enthusiasm and excitement a person can come to fear of [God's] majesty which is called by our Sages, of blessed memory, "house." As in the dictum of our Sages, of blessed memory: "Woe to him who has no house, etc." And this is "the gate of heaven." For prayer is the primary gate to heaven, to come to apprehend Divinity and fear of heaven, the good treasure, the heaven, for the fear of God is his treasure. Study this carefully, for it is correct. (Ma'or va-Shemesh,[7] Vayetze, Vayachalom) 


            The Rebbe of Cracow transplants the concepts that we have come across thus far – exile and redemption, destruction and salvation, holy and profane – to far more pleasant and less polarized surroundings: study vis-a-vis prayer. Like the Rebbe of Soroki, he too cites the midrash that describes how Ya'akov Avinu had spent fourteen years in the bet midrash of Shem and Ever studying Torah, and all of a sudden was forced to abandon it all and go to Charan. According to the Rebbe of Cracow, the significance of the change for Ya'akov relates to the manner in which he served God. 


Ya'akov sets out on his journey, and immediately, "he lighted (vayifga) on a certain place," and, as Chazal say, pegi'ah refers here to prayer. At that moment, the two paths of Divine service, Torah study and prayer, stood one opposed to the other.


According to the Rebbe of Cracow, prior to his dream, Ya'akov Avinu had not immersed himself in the world of prayer. He had thought that through Torah alone and attachment to it a person can attain nearness to God and communion with Him. But now Ya'akov prays and in the wake of his prayer he merits an uplifting Divine revelation. Awaking out of sleep, according to the Rebbe of Cracow, is awaking out of study, that is to say, it is the recognition that his orderly study of the Torah had not brought him to the apprehension of God that he now reached by the merit of his prayer.[8]


This attitude is revolutionary, especially in light of the following talmudic passage:


Rava saw Rav Hamnuna prolonging his prayers, [and] said: They forsake eternal life and occupy themselves with temporal life. But he [Rav Hamnuna] held [that] the times for prayer and [study of the] Torah are distinct from each other. Rabbi Yirmiya was sitting before Rav Zera engaged in study; as it was growing late for the service, Rabbi Yirmiya was making haste [to adjourn]. Thereupon Rav Zera applied to him [the verse] (Mishlei 28:9): "He that turns away from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Shabbat 10a).


            Two factions are described in this passage. On the one hand, Rav Hamnuna who would prolong his prayers and Rabbi Yirmiya who would rush through his lecture in order not to miss the designated time for prayer. And on the other hand, Rava and Rav Zeira who criticized the other two for their conduct.


            The disagreement between Rava and Rav Hamnuna relates to the legitimacy of and attitude toward the material world. Eternal life  - this is Torah, and temporal life – this is prayer. Rava, therefore, tried to shorten prayer to the extent possible, while Rav Hamnuna was of the opinion that God made room for eternal life and also for temporal life, the one not coming at the expense of the other.


            Rav Zera's criticism of Rabbi Yirmiya gives significant priority to Torah study at the expense of prayer; prayer that is not backed up by Torah study is an abomination.


            The Rebbe of Cracow, like many other chassidic thinkers, "denies" Rava's distinction between eternal and temporal life. According to him, not only is prayer not "temporal life," but it is even more elevated than Torah study with respect to the apprehension of the Divine that may be reached through each of them.


            This position is reinforced by a tradition brought in the name of the Besht.


            All the teachings that we have seen until now ignore what seems to be an insignificant detail in the wording of Ya'akov's statement. Ya'akov says: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Until now, we have dealt with the words "This is no other than the house of God" and the new insight reached by Ya'akov that lies behind them. But a question may be raised regarding the second half of the verse as well. What is meant by "and this is"? For if we are dealing with only one place that is called by two different names, it should have read: "This is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven," without the second instance of the word "this." The repetition of the word "this" suggests that we are dealing here with two distinct places, one "the house of God" and the second "the gate of heaven."


In his answer to this question, the Besht as well describes the tension that accompanies Ya'akov as he leaves the bet midrash of Shem and Ever after fourteen years of Torah study. Ya'akov fears that his world is in ruins, and that all his previous achievements will quickly turn into mere memories, a legacy of the past. Will he now have time now to study? Ya'akov is a yeshiva bachur who has left his studies and gone out to earn a living. The feeling is one of distance and detachment.


The first night outside the bet midrash, Ya'akov goes to sleep and has a dream of revelation, the likes of which he had never experienced during all fourteen years of his study. Ya'akov wakes up in the morning and repents, pounding his chest and proclaiming "al chet": "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." God is found not only in the bet midrash, but also in the real world. Now, according to the Besht, Ya'akov comes to an astonishing distinction: "This is no other than the house of God" – the bet midrash from which I came is indeed the house of God. "And this is the gate of heaven" – but the place where I find myself now – the world, nature, the reality outside the bet midrash – is the gate of heaven.


It seems appropriate to explain the distinction between the two places by way of the image of house versus gate. A house is static, it is closed and its limits are clear. From the moment a person enters a house he is inside it. A gate is merely a passageway, a point of departure to what lies beyond. It has no justification in and of itself, but rather it always constitutes an entranceway to something else, big and tall.


 The house of God is the place to which God descends - "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). The gate of heaven is the place to which we must ascend.


This, perhaps, is the difference between "I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me" (Shir ha-Shirim 3:4), and "Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers" (ibid 1:4). The house of God is the place that we hold unto and do not let go. The Torah is racked with afflictions; it embodies the secret of the tzimtzum ("contraction") of the infinite into categories and definitions of laws and halakhot. The psychological state in relation to it is one of ceaseless grip. The gate of heaven is the place we run toward in pursuit of the king. The gate leads to the infinite place, where there are no limits, no  "I held him, and would not let him go." Just the opposite is true – there one must let go and allow oneself to be drawn in the enveloping light.


From this perspective, it was precisely his taking leave of the bet midrash that allowed Ya'akov to see visions of God. It was precisely his leaving the house that brought Ya'akov to the gate, and from there to the ladder at the top of which stands God.


The profane world that was of such great concern to the Rebbe of Soroki is precisely what allows the comprehension discussed by the Rebbe of Cracow.


It is only for the Besht that going out into the profane world turns from a necessity into an advantage. Going out into the profane world liberates a person from the chains of study and tzimtzum, which are indeed true and holy, but nevertheless chains.[9] When the search for God fills a man's soul, the world of Torah study can sometimes suffocate his spiritual aspiration for communion with God.[10]


Let us conclude with the words of Rav Kook, who comes also to explain the tension between Torah study and the real world. He too relates to "the gate of heaven":


Our place of rest is solely in God. But surely God is above all reality that can put within us some feeling or idea. And anything that is above all feelings and ideas means nothing to us, and the mind cannot rest in nothingness. Therefore, Torah scholars who seek God are for the most part weary and tired in spirit. When the soul yearns for the clearest light, it is not satisfied with the light of justice found even in the finest deeds, nor with the light of truth found even in the clearest studies, nor with the beauty found even in the most magnificent sights. At such a time, the world becomes ugly in its eyes. It expands so greatly within it that the entire world with both its materiality and its spirituality, with all its material and spiritual revelations, seems like a house of distress and its air suffocates it. They seek what is beyond their power, what as opposed to them is nothingness. And to turn nothingness into something even the will is unable to desire. For this reason, the power of the will and all the vigor of life in people whose inner objective is seeking God will sometimes weaken.

It is necessary to show the way how one enters the banqueting hall – by way of the gate. The gate is the Godliness that reveals itself in the world, in all its beauty and splendor, in every spirit and soul, in every living creature, in every plant and flower, in every nation and people, in the sea and its waves, in the beauty of the sky and the splendor of the luminaries, in the ideas of every author, in the imaginations of every poet, in the thoughts of every thinker, in the feelings of anyone who feels and in the valor of every valorous person.

The supreme Godliness that we yearn to reach, to be swallowed up into, to be gathered into its light - but we are unable to achieve the fulfillment of our desires - descends for us to the world and within it, and we find it and delight in its love, and find repose and peace in its rest. (Tzima'on le-El Chai, Zar'onim, Orot, p. 120)


            Ya'akov Avinu discovered that God has not only a house but also a gate, and when he reached that gate, he loosened the grip to which he had been so ceaselessly attached for the past fourteen years. When he let go, he saw before his eyes "the supreme Godliness" for which he had yearned standing at the top of the ladder, and all that was left for him to do was to allow himself "to be swallowed up into it," "to be gathered into its light," and "to delight in its light."




[1] Rashi writes: "'And I knew it not' – for had I known it I would not have slept in such a holy place as this." In contrast, Ibn Ezra comments: "'Surely the Lord is in this place' – because there are places where miracles may be seen. I cannot explain why this is so, because it is a wondrous secret."


[2] R. Yisrael Hapstein (1733-1815), the maggid of Kozienice, disciple of the Noda Bihuda, of the maggid, of R. Shmuel Shmelke Horowitz of Nikolsburg, and of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, was known for his miracles, and even Polish nobles approached him in order to receive his blessings. He wrote treatises on the Talmud and on Kabbala.


[3] R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta (1748-1825), one of the most important disciples of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, and one of the greatest disseminators of Chassidut in Poland and the Ukraine. After 1815, he was regarded as "the senior Admor" (zekan ha-admorim).


[4] The primary ramification of the Shekhina's presence in the exile about which the Rebbe of Apta speaks is "remembering them for good and redeeming them." But what he says is relevant even with respect to the very idea of the exile as a place in which the Divine presence may be found.


[5] While the dream itself comes to Ya'akov in Eretz Israel, his journey is one of going into exile, and from this perspective, Ya'akov experiences his dream as if it had come to him in the exile.


[6] R. David Shlomo Eibenschutz of Soroki, disciple of R. Meshulam Feibish, a disciple of the maggid. He moved to Eretz Israel and settled in Safed. He is the author of Levushei Serad and Bigedei Serad on the Shulchan Arukh, as well as other works on the Magen Avraham and the Taz.


[7] R. Kalonymus Kalman ha-Levi Epstein of Cracow (1751-1823), disciple of R. Elimelekh and the choze of Lublin. He was the first to disseminate Chassidut in Cracow.


[8] It should be noted that this passage has a polemical element connected to the controversy between the Chassidim and the Mitnagedim with respect to the relationship between Torah study and prayer. The Chassidic claim against the Mitnagedim was that Torah study as a "commandment performed by rote" does not bring a person to nearness to God. It is, therefore, necessary to develop the world of prayer and Divine service that is not by way of Torah study.


[9] There is no need to say that the Besht is referring only to Ya'akov's departure, which was not an expression of the evil Yetzer or loathing of the toil of study. Not every wish to go out into the profane world embodies the great ideal that the Besht is talking about. But every going out into the profane world, to the degree that it purifies and refines, has within it the potential for Divine visions that cannot be seen in the bet midrash – thus, according to the Besht.


[10] It should be noted that R. Chayyim of Volozhin dealt with this argument in a polemical context when he spoke about cleaving to God through the letters of the Torah and through the study of its exoteric aspects. To a great extent, the author of the Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady, also followed in this path.


(Translated by David Strauss)