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Finding our ladder to heaven

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In Vayeitzei, we once again experience Yaakov’s wonderful dream of the ladder reaching up to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend whilst Hashem promises protection and guidance from above.

We can imagine the many ways in which our father, Yaakov, could have reacted to such a vision and promise – perhaps the most obvious is with euphoria. If our sages describe heaven as a place in which “there’s no eating and drinking [physical pleasure], jealousy, and competition, but rather the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and bask in the radiance of the divine presence” (Gemara Brachot 17a) and they teach us that the greatest of all possible joy is the ecstatic moment of closeness to G-d, then Yaakov could well have awoken with a spring in his step and a secret smile on his face that he was blessed with such revelation and promise.

In fact, the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Altar of Ger, warns that great spiritual accomplishments can actually lead to a self-congratulatory moment. Yaakov is to be praised for responding, instead, with quiet humility. Rather than viewing the revelation as a sign of his own holiness, he understands that he is in a holy place, and that it played an integral role in bringing him close to G-d (indeed, our sages teach us that he was on the Temple Mount, the future site of the Beit HaMikdash). The Sfat Emet takes this a step further, and says that Yaakov’s acknowledgement of the holiness of the place, his lack of self-congratulation, is part of what made it a holy place.

We are all, at times, blessed with spiritual inspiration. It may be more or less often, but we can all learn from Yaakov to accept such moments with reverence and humility. We can also learn to seek and value such experiences – a combination of internal preparedness and an encounter with a holy space. Whilst all of Hashem’s world is created by His hands and presents opportunities for inspiration, some places have been sanctified for a greater holiness, and these places give us our best chance for genuine connection. A shul, apart from being a beit knesset, a house of assembly, is a beit tefilla, a house of prayer. A space purpose built for human beings to seek and speak with the divine. Every word of prayer uttered in shul goes to heaven, but is also absorbed within the walls, floors, and roof of the shul itself. Every time we enter the holy space, we have an opportunity to sensitise ourselves to the spiritual energy that the shul absorbs and provides. My blessing for us all is that we all experience the holiness of the holy place, and do so in such a way as to leave it an even more holy place for those who come after us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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