When Jacob wakes up, after dreaming of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending, he exclaims:
“How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of G-d and this is the Gateway to Heaven.” [Bereishit 28:17]
Jacob realized that the place he had chosen for his sleep was already a holy site. Actually, it was the same site where his father, before him had rested his head when he was bound on the altar. Jacob could foresee that this site would be the place of the future Temple.
The Temple location was intrinsically holy. The Jewish people, throughout their history, have created places of holiness wherever and whenever they have built their synagogues. Through our prayers, these buildings become, in their own way, gateways to heaven. Our shuls are turned into conduits from which our prayers can ascend, collectively, to G-d.
A distinguished American educator, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, describes (in his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, I, p.155) a trip he made with his community to Eastern Europe. They visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp and their guide took them down some steps to a hidden underground room. Some Danish Jews had built a secret shul, under the very eyes of their Nazi tormentors. Rabbi Goldin writes how awestruck they were at the courage and devotion of these Jews who defied their enemies and continued to worship G-d, even when G-d’s face was hidden from them. As they walked round examining the walls of the little synagogue, they saw that biblical verses had been painted on them – a style quite common in European synagogues. One verse said poignantly, “[Dear L-d] do not forget us.” But the verse that struck everyone with shock and amazement was the passage:
“How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of G-d and this is the Gateway to Heaven.”
These Jews were at the gates of hell. Yet they had the courage to create a place of holiness and a gateway to heaven. In the depths of their pain they were still able to have the faith to believe that, somehow, G-d could be found.