Parashat Vayetze Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10-32:3
וַיֹּאמַר: "מַה נונּוֹרָא הַמָּקווֹם הַזֶּה! אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם".
And Jacob was filled with awe, and said: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
This week's parashah / Torah portion open opens with the very graphic story of Jacob's ladder. After decades of alienation from his brother Esau and his homeland, Jacob is on a journey of return with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his children. One night, he sleeps in an isolated spot and witnesses/dreams the apparition of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels moving down and up the ladder. This story has inspired commentators and artists for milennia, to my mind it provides us with enriching imagery for remembering who we are and what we should be keeping in mind every time we gather together: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
A synagogue is a lot of things: a place of worship; a community center; an education center; a social center, but the overarching umbrella concept that includes all of these and more is "house of God."
I like the combination of images in this verse: house of God and gate of heaven. What can that mean? Can we sit back and assume that any house of God also serves as a gate of heaven or is it a matter of earning the status of gate of heaven?
And what does "gate of heaven" mean anyway?
A gate is like a threshold. A gate allows us to pass from one realm into another. A congregation, a house of God, at its best, is a place where those who enter can find ways to move from the secular to the sacred.
On Tuesday evening, I asked the members of our Torat Yisrael board "What can we, as the leaders of this house of God do to assure that our congregation also serves as a gate of heaven?" I believe strongly in the essential role of leaders in shaping and guiding the values and culture of a congregation. But a congregation is, by definition, a collection on people brought together through a common denominator. Our common denominator, of course, is engagement in Judaism as a Conservative community.
In an ultimate and profound sense, the shaping and guiding of the values and culture of our congregation is the responsibility of everyone affiliated with Torat Yisrael, not only the formal leadership. And so I bring this same challenge to the entire Torat Yisrael family.
What we need to do is to agree among us, first of all, that we want Torat Yisrael, our house of God, to be a gate of heaven. Before we can work on the "how" we need to agree on the "what."
For the last few years, I have asked the officers and board members of our congregation to recite the following prayer on the occasion of their installation. I feel it is an outstanding blueprint for building and sustaining a house of God that is a gate of heaven:
May the doors of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship. May we welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the doors of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness.
May it not be a stumbling block to the young, or a hindrance to those who are older.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter the doorway to a richer more meaningful life.
To which I can only say "amen!"
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.