For over a century, we have been shifting our focus from “What’s up there beyond us” to “What’s down here inside us.” The chief explorer in this landscape of human interiority was Freud, who gave us the hidden murkiness of the unconscious. Other psychologists, most notably Jung, expanded the discovery of our inner selves as sources of sacred insight.
Western religions had pictured God outside ourselves, in some otherworldly sphere, beyond even the stars, called heaven. The psychologization of religion resituated heaven and its chief inhabitant, God, inside the human soul. Religion promised to put us in touch with God by first putting us in touch with ourselves.
If God is within us, prayer becomes akin to meditation. The prophets of old were a privileged class of sages who received wisdom from on high; today we are all prophets insofar as we access wisdom secreted deep within us.
It is easy to mistake this shift from projective to introjective language as evidence of the idolatry of self. But what is chiefly at stake may be no golden calf, but just metaphorical preference. God is God and the sacred is the sacred; different eras prefer different ways of picturing them.
Take Jacob, who “happens upon a place (a makom),” and, as the rabbis see it, prays Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, there. Since Makom is also a rabbinic epithet for God, they assume that Jacob stumbled upon God. Recognizing the place as holy, say the Tosafot, he even prayed early, rather than wait for night to fall, lest the sanctity depart by the time the stars appeared.
But if holiness is a condition of some external place outside ourselves, how could it evaporate? Only if the “sacred place” was a state internal to Jacob would he have feared its passing — like a mood, an impulse, or a feeling. In contemporary terms, we can say that Jacob found himself “in a good place” psychologically. With God’s reality inexplicably crystal clear — not as a vision from without but a certainty from within — Jacob fell into a state of prayerfulness.
With this thought in mind, the Tosafot revisit the Talmud’s discussion of makom as a name for God. “We call God Makom [‘Place’], says Rabbi Chalafta, but we do not know if God is the place of the world or the world is the place of God.” Here lies a deep philosophical question. When we are conscious of God, do we apprehend a Being greater than and encompassing all that is (“God is the place of the world”)? Or are we cognizant of something that is bigger than, and able to contain the reality of, God (“the world is the place of God”)? If the latter, then our own consciousness could be part of the larger whole in which God is contained.
Certainly the hasidim thought that. Itturei Torah brings us the opinion that rather than Jacob having to find the presence of God, “God’s presence was wherever Jacob already was.” Nor did the angels somehow materialize from some place outside of where Jacob happened to be. The angels are only described as “ascending” to heaven because “ascent” is the usual metaphor for the sacred, not because they really traversed some distance from heaven on high to Jacob down below, and back again. It was Jacob’s internal state that became flooded with an angelic presence, because it was a state of consciousness already permeated by the reality of the divine.
Our ancestors, who thought of God as utterly beyond, naturally imagined that Jacob had dreamed of angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder. The dream was real, they thought; there were real angels, and the physical place where the dream occurred was a sha’ar hashamayim, “a gate to heaven.” Our post-Freudian understanding would say that when Jacob found himself in a “good place” internally, he became able to experience God’s reality; he thereupon fell into a meditative trance in which it was as if even angels were present to him. In retrospect, he described the inner spiritual peace that he had experienced as a sacred gateway to the divine. Ever after, we can imagine, he sought such inner experiences, again and again.
That becomes our task: not stumbling upon a sacred environment “out there” — a perfect spot in the forest or a spectacular nighttime view of the stars — but attuning ourselves to an inner state where we cannot doubt the reality of the sacred. We are ourselves sha’arei shamayim, struggling daily to open ourselves to the divine.