I was complaining to a friend that I had never traveled and never seen the amazing sites around the world. He suggested a road trip to Las Vegas.
‘“I work hard for my money and hate gambling,” I said.
“Not for the gambling,” he responded. “We can see the pyramid, the sphinx, the Eiffel Tower, Venetian Canals, an erupting volcano, parts of New York City, the Colosseum, indoor skydiving, and meet a bunch of famous people at the wax museum.”
“But it’s all fake,” I said.
“It looks real, and that’s all that matters,” he said, as if that would convince me. “Take the church in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example. It’s an exact replica of Solomon’s temple, built to four times the scale of the original. You can go there and feel like you have actually been to the Temple. Who needs Jerusalem?”
Did he have a point? In an age where virtually every inch of the planet is available online at every moment, is one place really different than another? Do I really need to travel around the world to see its wonders?
The Bible has the answer. In this week’s Torah portion, the portion of Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3), the Bible refers to one spot on earth as “the place,” and it is like no other place on the planet. No copy or replica can take the place of actually going there. Where is this place?
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After Jacob fled his father’s home, the Torah says he stayed overnight in “a certain place”.
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. Genesis 28:11
The medieval commentator known as Rashi explains that it is unusual for the Torah not to name the spot, but Jewish tradition teaches that it is referring to Mount Moriah where Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice.
American congregational Rabbi David Stavsky explained that the sages identified the location as Mount Moriah based on the Hebrew word used in this verse: ba-makom (בַּמקום), ‘upon the place.’ The Bible could have used the term, bi-makom (בְּמקום), which means ‘upon a place.’ The use of the definite article means this refers to the most important spot in the entire world.
Rabbi Stavsky explained that Jacob came upon “the place where Jacob’s father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham, had built an altar. The place where Isaac was bound to the altar. The place which, for centuries, has tied us to God. Hamakom, ‘the place,’ was Mount Moriah, eventually to become the heart and soul of Jerusalem, and it was as if a magnet had drawn young Jacob to wander the hot Mesopotamian desert that night, to that particular place.”
What is so unique about this place? Rabbi Stavsky continued:
“And dear friends, I dare say that whatever force pulled Jacob to that place that night, pulls you and me to that place. It is a deep mystical pull. It is holiness.”
The holiness of Israel in general, and Mount Moriah in particular, is so great and so alluring that it can not be replaced by any other place on earth. Not even by an exact replica of the Temple.
When encountering God in your life, the experience is all-encompassing. This is what Jacob experienced that night in ‘that place.”
Hassidic thought teaches the concept of “Ashan” (ע,ש,ן) which is an acronym for Olam (עולם, literally ‘world’ but referring to ‘place’), sha’ah (שעה, hour, or time), and nefesh (נפש, soul). Every moment of our lives is a unique and irreplaceable moment that brings together a specific person, place, and time. This cannot be replicated, certainly not with a cheap, Vegas copycat that was built for tourists.
Though the holiness of Mount Moriah can not be replicated anywhere else in the world, we can encounter God on a smaller scale anywhere.
About 25 years ago, I was working as a medic for teen tours in Israel. I was in between jobs and living with a friend. My first group was made up of American teensת and we were headed to the Ramon Crater in the south. The guide, Yisrael Chevroni, led us into the desert before dawn where we climbed a mountain. Out of breath and sleep deprived, we watched the sunrise.
“Choose a spot in the distance,” Yisrael said. “Imagine yourself standing there. Imagine how you feel and what you are wearing. Tell me, how did you get there? Where are you going?”
In a soft voice that the entire group could hear in the desert silence, Yisrael talked us through a meditation, focusing on where we were in space and time. After fifteen minutes, I openly wept, realizing that I was lost in the desert of my life. Two months later, I was learning in a yeshiva (school for Torah study) in a settlement perched on a mountainside in Gush Etzion. Many of my questions were answered through Bible study, and many more were answered through prayer.
To this day, every once in a while when I am sitting quietly or walking through the fields near my home in the Golan, I hear Yisrael’s voice, asking me the same questions.
Where am I? How did I get here? Where am I going?
We can not live on Mount Moriah, but we can fill our lives with holiness and spirituality. It is up to us to put ourselves on the right path and to open ourselves up to encountering God at all times.
We can’t always be in “the place”, but we can find our own meaningful place in this world.