As this week’s parasha begins, Jacob, having just swindled his brother out of his birthright and his blessing, is on the lam, en route to cool his heels in Haran for a while. Before he can get there, however, he is destined to make one of the most famous pit stops in history. “And Jacob left Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran,” the parasha tells us. “And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed them at his head, and he lay down in that place. And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.”
What follows is the stuff of legend: God appears, promising Jacob that the land on which he lies shall belong to his seed, and Jacob wakes up the next morning in a grateful mood. “How awesome is this place!” he declares. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” With the thought in mind, he takes the stone on which he had placed his head the night before and erects a monument to God, renaming the hill Bet El, or the House of the Lord.
It’s a curious moment. If God, as we are brought up to believe, is everywhere, why is Jacob smitten with the particular location where he had just happened to lie down for a quick nap? And why does the Bible refer to that location so casually, identifying it merely as “the place”?
The second question is easier to answer. “The place” is the same spot where Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, once prepared to sacrifice his father, Isaac. It’s the same spot where Noah built his altar when he emerged from the ark. It’s the same spot where the Holy of the Holies would stand for nearly a thousand years during the times of the first and the second temples. It’s the place where heaven and earth meet, and more than half of the mitzvot make reference to it in one way or another.
Jacob realizes the holiness of the place instinctively, but to those of us who hadn’t had the pleasure of divine revelation the idea is a bit more difficult to swallow. How are we—we who had never seen the temple, we who move an average of 11.7 times in our lives, we who have come to think of space as primarily a virtual construct, as in “MySpace” or Space Wars—to understand just how holy and awesome space can be?
The answer: by playing Minecraft. Released last year, this computer game now has more than 1.6 million registered users, most of whom speak of it in religious terms and are perfectly willing to sacrifice careers, relationships, and personal hygiene to meet the game’s increasingly intricate demands.
The premise is simple: As the game begins, you, a poorly animated wretch—think early Doom—find yourself stranded alone on an island, the sun beating overhead. By the time it sets, you better have built a shelter; otherwise, Creepers—imagine green-tinted Peeps melted in the fires of hell—skeletons, and an assortment of other pixillated meanies are bound to nosh on your flesh. Herein lies the game’s genius—Minecraft’s world is an enormous virtual sandbox, and it allows you to manipulate its trees, rocks, and other natural resources. You can start by knocking down a few trees, improvising a few tools, and building yourself a humble hut; a few hours (days? weeks?) later, you might have graduated to a castle, a roller-coaster, or the U.S.S Enterprise, depending on your predilections. Then you begin mining the earth for goods. I’ll stop there—like sex, whiskey, or Twitter, Minecraft is one of those things that makes little sense until you try it out yourself.
The game’s appeal is more theological than technological. We’ve seen other “open-world” games before—Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption come to mind—games that allow the player to freely explore a vast digital universe at his or her own pace, interacting with objects and characters and setting one’s own course. And we’ve seen so-called sandbox games, like Sid Meier’s megapopular Civilization series, which allow players to build their own worlds from scratch. But Minecraft outdoes its predecessors in at least one important way: It provides both the sensation that the world is wide and infinite and the ability to seize one of its corners and build a room of one’s own. Play an open-world game and you’re just roaming about. Play a sandbox game and you’re just busy building edifices and fretting about infrastructure. Play Minecraft and you get a sense, uncommon in video games, that space is real, that it matters, that it’s yours. If you’re anything like me, no matter how far you advance in the game, you’d always look back fondly at that first hut you managed to build that first night on the island. It’s your shelter, the geographical point from which you could safely look up and imagine God.
In real life, of course, most of us have no such place. Home, much as we may love it, can never be solely sacred. It’s the place where we feel safest, but it’s also where we eat and clean and work and collapse on the couch in front of the television after a hard day. A synagogue is a holy place, but it is a holy place for us and a community of other people, a place for which we dress up and in which we act reverentially. Minecraft allows us the rare pleasure of having a private sanctuary, one we build ourselves and on which our survival depends. There’s no ladder to heaven—you could probably build one if you put your mind to it—but there’s no need for one, either. The place—or shall I say “the place”?—has already been built.
As this week’s parasha draws to an end, Jacob pulls off a Minecraft move of his own. Having begun by laying down a single stone to mark the spot of his weird, transcendental dream, he heads to the holy land—two wives and many years later—but stops at Mount Gal-Ed on the way and makes a pact with his father-in-law, Laban. This time, he lays down a whole pile of stones. Like us nerds clicking away furiously at our keyboards as we play the game, Jacob knows the temptation of building bigger and better things. He knows better than most the vagaries of wandering, and he knows the joys of settling down. That, after all, is why “the place” ended up being God’s own house; even he needed a permanent residence. We can no longer experience this kind of devotional purity in real life. But Minecraft awaits.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.