“Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.” (Genesis 28:18)
Parashat Vayeitzei describes Jacob’s flight from Canaan to Haran to escape his brother Esau’s anger. Along the way, he dreams his famous dream of angels going up and down a ladder (Gen. 28:12). When he wakes, he declares, “…How awesome is this place! This is none other than beit elohim, the house of God and that is the gateway to heaven” (Gen. 28:17). While God’s revelation is reserved only for an elite few in the Torah, Jacob’s reaction is the foundation of the democratic and egalitarian culture in Jewish prayer and spirituality.
Rabbinic thought telescopes time and space, claiming the top of Jacob’s dream ladder reaches the beit hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. This allows them to compare each patriarch’s experience with the future Temple’s location, which represents prayer. To Abraham, in the story of the binding of Isaac, the future site of the Temple is a mountain top (Gen. 22:14). The implication is Abraham must make a great effort to elevate his soul to pray. To Isaac, after his mother Sarah’s death, the future site of the Temple is a field (Gen. 24:63). Isaac must broaden his heart and his mind to pray. In each case, they leave their regular enclosed surroundings for a special, open environment. Only Jacob experiences the Temple as a house (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 88a). Jacob must concentrate his intentions to pray.
The rabbis derive a powerful idea from Jacob’s reaction: prayer requires neither exotic locations nor exotic spiritual practices. It requires only a home, a defined space in which to concentrate your intentions. When you do that, every home becomes the house of God.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom