We read in the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei of the famous prophetic vision that Yaakov beheld as he slept during his journey from his homeland to Charan. Yaakov saw a ladder extending from the ground to the heavens, and angels climbing up and down the ladder. Upon awakening, he exclaimed that the site where he had slept was “the house of God” and “the gateway to the heavens” (28:17), as evidenced by the ladder which connected heaven and earth at that spot. Yaakov named the place where he slept “Beit-El” – “the house of the Almighty.” The Torah makes a point of mentioning to us that the area was previously known by the name “Luz” (28:19).
Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in Menachem Tziyon, writes that the significance of the shift from the name “Luz” to “Beit-El” may perhaps be understood in light of the Gemara’s description of a city built later that bore the name “Luz.” A verse in Sefer Shoftim (1:26) tells that after Benei Yisrael’s conquest of Beit-El, the resident who helped them capture the city moved and built a new city which he renamed Luz. The Gemara tells in Masekhet Sota (46b) that this was a unique city, and “the angel of death did not have permission to pass through it,” such that its inhabitants were protected from death. But “the elders within it,” the Gemara says, “at the time when they were exasperated, they would go outside the wall and die.” The people did not die in the city, and so when people grew old and no longer wished to live, they would go outside the city. Rav Sacks explains that the Gemara here depicts the tragic phenomenon of people who strive to prolong their lives, but fail to find meaning and fulfillment. There are people who work very hard to protect themselves from the “angel of death,” to live long lives, but they eventually find themselves in a condition described by the Gemara as “da’atan katza aleihen” – of “exasperation,” of discontentment and fatigue, which leads them to wish for death.
Rav Sacks thus suggests that the renaming of Luz as “Beit-El” – “the House of God” – indicates to us that the way we avoid the phenomenon of “Luz,” of long but unfulfilling lives, is through Yaakov’s dream in Beit-El, which symbolizes the merging of heaven and earth. Alongside our efforts to maintain our physical health and prolong our lives, we must also strive to reach the “heavens,” to connect with God, as symbolized by the ladder extending from the ground to the heavens. If we focus solely on the “ground,” on our physical wellbeing, we might likely experience the lack of fulfillment sensed by the people of Luz. We must instead live here on earth with our minds reaching towards the heavens, striving each day to strengthen our relationship with the Almighty and thereby make each and every day meaningful and fulfilling.