Yaakov runs away from his brother, falls asleep, has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder, and God appears to him and promises to watch over him. He then wakes up and declares: “This is none other than the house of the Lord and this is the gate of heaven,” on which the Rabbis comment, “Not like Avraham that called [God’s place] a mountain, nor like Yitzchak that called it a field, but like Yaakov that called it a house” (Pesachim 88a). What is the significance of the place of God being a house, and what is the significance of a house in Yaakov’s life?
A house, unlike a mountain or a field, has boundaries, has limits. It defines what is inside of it and what is outside of it. God is truly everywhere. But if God is in the fields and on the mountains, if God is experienced equally everywhere, then to some degree God is also nowhere. With a house, with walls, one defines a place, and God is – somehow- more present in that place than outside that place. The boundaries allow for degrees of connection, degrees of intensity.
Boundaries, walls, also define an interior and an exterior. Within a smaller, interior space greater intimacy is possible. It is a connection that is not shared equally with all. It is only for those that are in the house, that are close, that are just with each other and not with the outside world. A house allows for warmth, a house can become a home, and as such it creates bonds of connection, bonds of intimacy.
Walls also give protection. Protection from the elements, privacy, and the ability for those inside to nurture one another and to tend to each other’s needs. A house provides security and protection.
Boundaries also define limits. Not all is acceptable. There are rules in a house. But with those limits comes caring, comes direction, and comes meaning. The Beit HaMikdash was guided by a myriad of rituals and rules, but this is what gave it its sanctity, its meaning. And so it is in our own homes. As the ex-rapper Shyne, now Orthodox Jew Moses Levi, said at the end of a recent NY Time article:
“What I do get is boundaries,” he said. “Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself.“All these rules, rules, rules,” he said with his hand on an open page of the Talmud. “But you know what you have if you don’t have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don’t know when to say when and no one tells you no, you go off the deep.”
And, finally, a house requires work – work to build it, and work to sustain it. A mountain, a field, just are -they exist and we take them and value them for what they are. But a house we build, we put our efforts, we put ourselves into it, and we value it not just for what it is, but for what we have invested in it, we value it as a part of ourselves. Thus, Har Sinai, where we experienced the greatest presence and revelation of God, has no lasting sanctity after God’s presence departed from it. The Beit haMikdash, the house that we build for God, retains its sanctity even after it was destroyed, because our investment, and our connection, transcends the structure and lives on for all future time.
This is true about creating a House of God, and it is true about creating our own homes, and our family life. Yaakov Avinu was the first of our forefathers to truly feel dispossessed and homeless. Avraham was told to leave his father’s house and his homeland, but he went to the Promised Land, the land that would be his future (and present) inheritance. Yaakov ran away not only from his father’s house and his homeland, but also from the Promised Land and his land of inheritance. Yaakov was also was running away from his brother, and knew that his father had intended to give the blessing to his older brother. It is safe to say that Yaakov was feeling vulnerable, without a physical home, and emotionally distant from his family. Yaakov was without a home and a home life. Thus, God promises him not only that he will have the Land of Canaan and many children, but also that God will be with him and protect him. God will take care of him and provide him with the security and protection of a family when he is without one.
Yaakov, then, is the forefather who most feels the need for a home, who, lacking his own home, is most sensitive to what it means to have a home. He understands the importance of making a House of God, and not a field, not a mountain. He also understands the importance of building his own home. Although he makes mistakes as a father – showing favoritism to Yosef and Binyamin stand out in particular – Yaakov is the first of the forefathers that is described in the Torah as truly investing in his role not as a forefather, but as a father. He talks to his wives and consults with them before he makes decisions (Breishit 31:4 ff.), and he knows that he has an obligation to provide for his family – “When will I do also for my family?” (Breishit 30:30). He protects his family from imminent danger with Esav and his men, and risks his own life fighting the angel (contrast this to Avraham risking Sarah’s wellbeing to protect his own life). He is involved in the lives of his children, he criticizes them when he needs to – for their actions at Shechem, for their behavior when they try to procure grain from Egypt – and he praises them when they are deserving – his highly personalized blessing at the end of his life.
Yaakov is, in all respects, a deeply devoted family man. He is man that has spent his life trying to build a house, to ensure that is children have the walls and the structure, the discipline, the boundaries, the warmth, the caring, and the intimacy, that he himself lacked for so much of his life. He gives everything to his family, and it is thus that Yaakov’s house endures. Yaakov created Beit Yaakov, the House of Jacob. He has 12 children, all of whom are part of Klal Yisrael. Twelve children, all of whom are respected for their individuality and whose differences and uniqueness make up the multifaceted nature of the Jewish People. They are children that know that there is a home where they are loved and cared for, that no matter how far they travel – to Mitzrayim, to Adulam – no matter what mistakes they make – that they can always come back home.
Like Yaakov, who called it a house, let us work to build a house for God that will endure, and let us work to build our own houses, to invest in them and in our relationships, so that no matter what happens, our house will always be a home, a home of love, of intimacy, of boundaries, of protection – a home where everyone is loved and valued for his and her individuality, a home to always come back to.