Yaakov is the first person in the Torah who articulates the idea of a house of God. “This is nothing other,” he says upon waking up, “than the house of God and this is the gate to heaven” (Gen. 28:17).
The Rabbis point out the power of that concept of a house of God and its association with Yaakov. They cite the verse that envisions a future time when the nations will say: “Let us get up and go…to the house of God of Jacob” (Isa. 2:3). In Yaakov’s naming, in his way of encountering God, Yaakov was different from those who preceded him. While Avraham saw God on the mountain, and Yitzchak meditated on God in the field, Yaakov connected to God’s presence uniquely, in a house.
Why a house?
A house has walls, limits, and boundaries. The structure of a house presents a paradox. How can God, who is infinite and everywhere, be contained within a house? King Solomon declares this very absurdity when he dedicates the Temple: “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” (I Kings 8:27).
While logically absurd, a house of God is also a religious necessity. If God is equally everywhere, on the mountaintops and the fields, then God is equally nowhere. Where is God to be found?
A house has boundaries; it inhabits a specific location and occupies a defined space. It is this finitude, this concreteness, that creates a place where God can reside, where God can be found.
Because it has limits and walls, it has an inside and an outside. An inside allows for closeness and for intimacy.
As we have learned so well in the age of COVID, everybody in a house is brought together as one unit, one family. The house defines them and their shared experiences as distinct from the larger world outside. In such a space, a person can be intimate with God. A person can cultivate with God a personal, direct relationship, one that draws on their shared experiences together. And those who gather together in such a house, can—as a community—both deepen their relationships with one another and also forge a collective connection with God.
A house provides shelter. It is a place of protection and caring. “And it shall be a shelter for shade in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for protection from storm and from rain” (Isa. 4:5-6). A house of God is a place where the troubled can find comfort, and the weary can find strength.
A house must also be built. You have to invest your passion, your time, and your energy to create something that will provide the protection, the warmth, and the intimacy that you desire. Our hard work in building a house and in turning a house into a home permeates its very walls and emanates from them.
So it is with our relationship with God and our relationship with others. These relationships do not happen by themselves. They exist and flourish because of the work we put into them, the connectedness and the intimacy, and the support and comfort that we give and that we receive.
Yaakov, who was running from a home of conflict and strife, sought a new home, a relationship with God that could provide him with the anchoring, security, and connection that he so desperately needed. Some of us, driven by religious passion, might need to go out and seek God in the fields and on the mountaintops. But so many of us, wherever we are coming from, need to find God in a house, in a home. It is this relationship—with God and with our families and loved ones—nurtures us, sustains us, and allows us to flourish.