Bethel - The Dedication of the Temple (Dec 2008)

In approaching Hanukah, the feast of the re-dedication of the Temple, we encounter two Torah readings (Parshah Vayetze. Genesis 28:10-32:3 and Parshah Vayishlach Genesis 32:4-37) which describe Bethel, the place where Jacob dreamt of the ladder and which he named Beit-El, the “House of God”.

A strong Rabbinical tradition, notably expressed by Rashi, holds that this “Bethel” had been the site of the Akedah, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac at the hand of Abraham, and that it would become also the site of the Jerusalem Temple. This tradition thus emphasized the significance of Jerusalem and of the Temple with its sacrificial liturgy as the Gate of Heaven (Gen.28:17), the place where Heaven and Earth might meet.
Another, equally strong, Rabbinical tradition comments on the Torah extracts’ repetition of the word “place”. They relate this to a Name of God, Ha Makom (The Place), and focus on Jacob’s post-revelatory exclamation that “God was in this place and I knew it not” (Gen28:16). As this line of thought is developed, Bethel becomes an expression of the concept that “God is the place (makom) of the world but the world is not His place.” - That God is everywhere and not tied to any particular location.

So we have two approaches. The first reflecting a focus on Jerusalem, liturgy, and congregational establishment. The second reflecting a focus on relating to a God who cannot be pinned down but who can be “encountered” in mystical experience. These two approaches can co-exist, but there is a healthy “Jewish” tension between them, as is often the case. 

Somehow, the duality seems to be written into the text of the Torah itself, for Jacob actually dedicates the shrine at Bethel twice. The first time Jacob sets up the shrine he names the place “Beit El” (The House of God) (Gen 28:19). The second time, after he is recalled by hearing a revelatory voice, he renames the same location “El Beit El”, “The God of Beit El”. (Gen 35:7). 

Many traditional Jews pray for the rebuilding of the Temple (a “Third Temple” or “Temple of the Future”). Maybe, to paraphrase the motto of Hanukah, the Future Temple will arise “not by might, not by power, but by God’s spirit.” (Zechariah 4:6). This was an idea favoured in Shemos Rabbah 15:1 and in Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 13. Other traditional approaches favour the notion that such a temple will be built by man, by a Messiah, or by a combination of Divine and human forces. 

The Gemara states: “The future Temple is in the hands of heaven” (Rosh HaShanah 30a). Perhaps the Third Temple is not to be a structure in a particular place at all. Perhaps it is a spiritual and philosophical concept which will emerge out of the physical and ritual one, in much the same way as the original Beit-El was “renamed” - that is to say, transformed - just as Avram became Avraham, Jabbok became PeniEl, and Jacob became IsraEL.  

Such a concept might also be taken to represent a development in focus from the structure (religious systems and forms) to the essence (The God who is “behind” and often “in” them but not “contained” by them.) This was in my mind last year when I wrote about the shammash, the ninth light of Hanukah, and said: “As it can be viewed as standing behind or above the cultic lights of the menorah… perhaps it could remind us of the ultimate inadequacy of all our attempts to describe, understand, or worship God. A memory of the burning bush?”
Or to put it another way:
The Burning Bush
reminds us of the enigma which is God’s Name.
Known and yet not known.

The Hanukiah
is a symbolic memory of the Temple Menorah,
It brings to mind the glories of the Jerusalem Temple and its liturgies.

The Temple Menorah
is a symbolic memory of the Burning Bush,
It brings to mind the way that God revealed Himself in a mere bush
Which brings to mind the fact that there is no place devoid of Him.

The Light of the Shammash
reminds us that behind the enigma, the liturgy, and the symbols
is God Himself (Ein Sof).

The Shammash is the flame which lights all other flames
In the Yod of God’s Name
At the point where our world and His meet.

This year, on a much humbler scale and with a more limited brief, another “Beit-El” was dedicated. On September 25th 2008 (Elul 25) a few friends and I started an online Jewish Contemplative Community. We took the name “Congregation Beit-El”, partly because the co-founder had a special interest in the eighteenth century kabbalistic community which bore the same name. (Coincidentally its founder, R. Shalom Sharabi, is known as “The Shammash”). We are not a kabbalistic group as such, but there is a similarity in so far as the Sharabi congregation intended to make a difference to the world specifically by its life of prayer. So do we. 

Our tiny "Congregation Beit-El" has only a handful of members at present. It is a congregation for Jewish solitaries, for Jews living far from accessible congregations, and for contemplative Jews who would like to pray along with them.
Its private website at Community of Jewish Contemplatives is simply a notice board for this community which facilitates group solidarity between members who live far apart. Members are invited to unite in prayer though they may never meet, and to use the notice-board to post prayers, reflections, and commentaries for the benefit of the group. It requires a password. 

I am happy to give interested potential members more information on request via email

In recent weeks on that “Community of Jewish Contemplatives” web-site I have been posting up a Haftarah commentary. As this particular week’s commentary (Jacob’s Angels) ties in with the theme of this blog entry, I am going to cross-post an edited version of it here:

Haftarah Vayetze (Sefardim) Hosea 12:4

Jacob’s Angels

The Haftarah extract which “jumped out at me” this week turned out to be quite an enigma. Much academic ink has been used in translating and interpreting this verse, with variants including:

he(Jacob) found Him (God) at Beit El
He(God) found him (Jacob) at Beit El
He/he(the angel) found him (Jacob) at Beit El
There He (God) will speak to HIM (Jacob)
There He spoke to US(Jacob’s descendents) 

Most of the variations in translation/interpretation seem to come from the fact that the Masorete text uses “imanu” (with us) whilst the Septuagint uses “ imo”. (I do not speak either Ivrit or Biblical Hebrew and I am no Bible Scholar, I simply spotted the variation in my three different Bibles and then found the reasons clearly expressed online in footnote 8 HERE. ) 

Whatever the academic reasons for the variations, the Haftarah quote is rich in potential meanings. The ambiguity is a textual challenge but it is also a poetic and prophetic form:
Whenever a Biblical text has multiple meanings I prick up my ears.

I remember the “sight of sound” (Exodus 20:15) that we experienced at Sinai;
I remember the Shin and Zayin engraved on my Shabbos candle-sticks. They divide and separate flame while bearing one light. (One candle for Shamor, one for Zachor);
I remember that “God has spoken once, twice have I heard” (Psalm 62:12)
And above all, I remember “I will be what I will be”. (Exodus 3:14)
The Jacob narrative in Genesis is full of such deliberate ambiguity, particularly when the text is attempting to describe God’s action. Many times the revelation shimmers around the action without confirming its author. We are never quite sure how the revelation is taking place. Is it an encounter with God Himself, the angels he sends, or the humans and circumstances Jacob encounters? We ask ourselves the same question in our own prayer lives. 

Taken from the Sefardic Haftarah for Vayetze, the Hosea 12:4 quote is one of those special enigmatic texts which contain simultaneous multi-meanings. Who found who? Were we there? Who is speaking to whom? When? Does the event still live?

Beit El is the “Home” of God’s Presence.
It was taken to be the eventual site of the Temple.
It may become so again, but in a spiritual form.

Beit El is a focal-point in our spiritual lives.
A Point at the edge of time and space in which we hope to encounter God.

Beit El is the place where we hope to hear the Voice of God as Jacob did.

Let’s see how Jacob “heard the Voice of God” in his life and draw some conclusions for our own lives.

In the “M’arat Ha-Lev” on pages 48 to 52 I wrote at length about hearing the Voice. You can read this passage HERE. It is a deliberately ambiguous passage as it touches lightly on areas of mystical experience which are best not described in detail, but experienced anew by each person. It is true that in a tiny number of instances I was writing about the Voice of God, heard with the ears of the mind or soul and not the body and always filtered and obscured by our personalities and powers of imagination. Such “auditory” spiritual experiences may happen once in a life-time if at all. They are most certainly a rarety.
In Jacob’s “147” years (Gen 47:28) he had direct (recorded) experience of “hearing God’s Voice”- at Bethel (re-affirming the Abrahamic covenant)-Gen 28; during the stay with Laban (requiring his return to Canaan)- Gen 31; at Jabbok/Peniel (when wrestling and receiving a name change) – Gen 32; on being sent back to Bethel (reiteration of the covenant) – Gen 35; at Beer-Sheba (en route to Egypt to meet Joseph) Gen 46. That’s FIVE times in 147 years. That seems about right to me, for a Patriarch. It should also help us to keep our mystical aspirations in realistically humble perspective. 

But there are several times when Jacob “hears” God’s voice less “directly”: via angels (messengers) and during dreams. These less “exalted” and more indirect types of spiritual experience are also far more common in the lives of ordinary contemplatives. Though they seem to come in infrequent but intense bursts, we often have a very clear intuition that they are in the nature of personal revelations and epiphanies. A request made in prayer for illumination on a problem (sometimes practical, sometimes theological, sometimes career-based, sometimes ethical) is often followed by one or many of the following:
An impulse to open a particular book and finding a directly relevant passage;
A coincidental reading of an answering phrase in an unrelated book we are currently reading;
A passage in the Bible or Siddur which leaps out at us unexpectedly;
A meeting with a friend, or more often a stranger who says something directly pertinent to our question with no possible way of knowing it was on our mind;
A scene in a television programme hitting our nail on its head;
An apparently meaningless tune that enters our head and replays itself until we slowly remember the lyrics which, (Surprise! Surprise!) fit our problems’ solution exactly;
A telephone call or email from someone we had not heard from for months or years expressing related thoughts or initiating a coincidence which leads to an “answer”.
The list could go on and on. For me, these are clear examples of angels bearing messages from God for our own individual ears. In those months or years when we don’t seem to be meeting such angels we can feel quite desolate. We would be floating on air, or perhaps gasping for breath in the suffocation of immanence, if these events came too frequently or too intensely. Sometimes it is almost a relief when they stop visiting us. But when they happen, we really ought to be grateful and sit up and take notice. We may not be Jacob. But we are his descendents. They are gifts which are more common than many will admit.
One thing I will add:- Though it does not follow infallibly, I think it is true to say that:
the deeper one’s silent periods in daily living are;
the more frequent or intense one’s specifically attentive periods in prayer are;
and the less one is expecting a dramatic answer yet still persistently asking for help:
The more likely it seems to be that these angels visit us.
Our task is to be ever on the lookout for such opportunities, and sometimes these “angels” are only “recognized” by us if we are prepared to wrestle with them.
But what of the many years that Jacob was neither talking to God “directly”, encountering clearly “angelic” messengers, or accessing the “world which is coming” in his sleep? 

Jacob was a man who saw Providence at work because he had time to reflect upon it. His tale is also one of great human drama:- as he followed his mother’s dynastic schemes and plans; as he learnt a hard lesson about deceit when he himself was deceived by Laban; as he was torn apart by fear of his brother, as he struggled to keep his large and volatile family together, as he suffered the long years of the agony of Joseph’s disappearance. In all of this he was a man of contemplative bent. A shepherd, a tent-dweller, one who would have preferred to stay “at home”. Such a person would have been attentively listening for the “Voice of God” in the most apparently secular/mundane aspects of his life. Such a person would have heard the Voice of God everywhere and in everything….certainly from the time he had realised that “God was in this place” and “he knew it not” onwards. 

For us it is also the same. As contemplatives, we are not always scaling stairways to heaven, but we are forever going up and coming down so that, bit by bit, we are removing the veils which hide our God in both the night of our private prayers and in the brash daylight of our ordinary lives. We may find an angelic light enmeshed in the apparently mundane, just as we might find the answers to our prayers surprisingly ordinary and down-to-earth. 

Many commentators wrestle with the (literary) Angel of Peniel. Some say it was God’s Presence. Some say it was the angel of Esau (or even Esau himself). Some say it was an “ordinary” man sent as a messenger to try Jacob. Some say it was the fear inside Jacob emerging in a dream. It could be all, or many, of those simultaneously. 

All of these are messengers of Ein Sof. We hear the Voice of God in the secular as well as the religious. In the speech of our family and friends. In the written word which we seek or find. In a talmud which is composed of the daily events in our lives. In a scripture which is formed by our unfolding life stories and choices. 

God found Jacob in His house, and in that House He will speak with us.
Once we have encountered God, for however short a moment in time, we know what "home" really means. 

Whether you are living in a cave as I am—or if your life is largely active with moments of silent waiting on God squeezed in wherever you can – or if you are unable to pray and just wish you could. If you place yourself in God’s House……that is to say, if you make God your focal point above all else… I guarantee, you will meet his angels. More than that, He will let you “find Him and there He will speak with you”.

(The illustration for this post is called "Lights of Hanukah". It shows the Shammash and the eight days/lights of the festival. Each of the separate panels is derived directly from the central photo of my hanukiah candlestick.)