The Torah is replete with many geographical references, and place names are often featured prominently. Places are often named in response to events which have taken place there or which have been significant for characters in the Torah. Also, just as people's names are changed at significant life junctures, place names are often changed in similar circumstances. In some cases, the Torah makes a point of noting the former name of a newly or renamed place, and sometimes a named place is also described as another name by which that place is (now) known.
Scholars and academics often point to these as proof texts for human authorship, editing, redaction and other evidences of anachronisms and odd features. They may very well be such.
Many of these place name change situations and updated geographical references are easily explained by these sorts of theories. Yet sometimes Torah gives us a geographical reference that has us scratching our heads.
We have such a reference in this week's parasha.
Yaakov (Jacob) stops at a "certain place" to rest for the night, and has his dream of angels and G"d speaking to him. He makes the famous declaration
"akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazeh v'anokhi lo yadati" - "surely G"d was in this place and I, I did not know it."
He erects a pillar, anoints it with oil, and then names the place Beit-El (Bethel) or "House/abode of G"d." Curiously, the Torah then goes on to relate that the place had been known as "Luz."
Not to be flippant but who cares that the place used to be called Luz? What's significant is what took place in this place for Yaakov, and the name he chose to give it as a result. It's not like it matters on iota what the place used to be called. Or does it?
Scholars of Torah, always striving to solve the Torah's mysteries have certainly attempted to explain what significance the former place name of Bethel had. Some scholars believe it means "almond tree" and others believe it may be related to an Arabic word meaning "a place of refuge." The latter certainly would seem to have some connection to the story, the former not at all.
It's also interesting to note that the dual naming of Bethel fka Luz occurs in a number of subsequent places in the Torah, most notably when Yaakov returns to Bethel after his time and trials with Laban.
So why does the Torah keep drawing our attention to the fact that the place Yaakov named Beit-El was also known as Luz? What's so important about that?
Perhaps there is nothing at all significant about this, and it is simply an oddity. If we attribute the Torah to Divine origin, we need only toss this oddity off on the ineffability of G"d. If we believe the Torah is of human origin (with or without Divine influence) then we have to ask many questions: is this the way the text originally read, or was the inclusion of the reference to Bethel as formerly being Luz added? If it was added, then why was it added? If the reference to Luz is original to the text, why did subsequent editors or redactors choose to keep what was likely an obsolete reference in their own time? (There is another place named Luz in the Bible, but it is in the north, and the reference is much later than the assumed dating of the stories in Genesis.) If the reference is original to the text, we could explain that it was not changed or removed simply because of the desire to remain faithful to the original. However, this flies in the face of so many other places in the Torah where the redactors clearly chose to make some textual modifications.
There are no simple answers. I do, however, have a theory. It is not a theory about why Bethel is cited as being the former place called Luz. Rather, it is a theory about what we can learn from this. We don't know what Luz means, if it means anything. It is simply a place name. Bethel (or Beit-El) is a place name which has clear meaning for us. Luz was an ordinary place, nothing special about it - or so one might assume. However, Yaakov's experience proves this thinking wrong. Luz was a special place. G"d was in the place and Yaakov (and likely everyone else there) did not know it.
It's somewhat like the several variations of stories in our tradition which teach us that "anyone of us could be the Moshiakh" (Messiah.) Any seemingly ordinary person could prove to be someone extraordinary. The same is true for places. Places that we assume have no intrinsic value or nothing that makes them special may indeed be endowed with all sorts of holiness and specialness.
Through its constant pairing of the names Bethel and Luz, the Torah is reminding us that there is always potential for greatness and holiness in the seemingly most mundane and ordinary of places. It's like the Torah is telling us "remember Luz-we thought it was Yemensville but it turned out to be a place where G"d lived."
It's like Torah reminding us that G"d can be found anywhere - everywhere. G"d may be right under our noses. Think of the things you discover about a place when you really take the time to take a good look at it. Think about the everyday miracles we miss in our constant search for the big miracles. Think about the potential that surrounds us all, every day, in every place. Sanctuary or school, bimah or bedroom. Urban or rural. Think how different our lives could be with the attitude that every Luz we encounter is also a Bethel.
What better way to reinforce Yaakov's very words:
akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazek v'anokhi lo yadati.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester