Vayeitze 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. The sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.

“Then Yaakov took a vow, saying: If God is with me, and guards me on this journey I’m taking [literally: on the way that I am walking], and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace- Adonai will be God to me, and this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be a place of God, and whatever You give to me, I will tithe to You.”
(Genesis 28:20-22)


Soon after leaving his home, fearful that his brother might kill him in revenge for stealing the birthright of the elder son, Yaakov arrives in Haran, lays down to sleep, and has a most extraordinary experience. He has a vision of a ladder between earth and Heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. God speaks to him, promising him the Land, descendants, protection, and the blessing which God promised to Avraham and Yitzhak. Yaakov awakes, realizing the Divine nature of his vision, and makes a vow that if God will indeed keep God’s promise, then Yaakov will be devoted in return.

Many of the classic Torah commentators struggle and stretch to deal with a fundamental problem in Yaakov’s vow: its apparent conditionality. I have tried to translated these verses in such a way that the ambiguity comes through in English, but still, Yaakov seems to be saying: if God will give me protection and food and clothing, then I will be loyal to God, letting Adonai be my God, so to speak. No wonder the medieval commentators had a hard time with this: could our spiritual ancestor, one of the Patriarchs of the Torah, really be so fickle, almost crass, as to condition his spiritual commitment on bread and clothing? What kind of loyalty is that, especially after such a powerful vision, in which he received the Heavenly promise of great blessings? Could Yaakov really be saying that if he did not get his food and clothing in short order, he would not accept Adonai as his God?

Faced with this problem, many of the commentators read Yaakov’s statement not as a conditonal vow, but as a prayer, something like: “Let God be with me, and protect me, and give me food to eat and clothing to wear.” The 19th century Polish commentator known as the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin), in his Torah commentary called Ha’emek Davar,* explains the next part of Yaakov’s declaration: “and Adonai will be God to me” as connected to the following clause, that he be returned to the land of Israel in peace. The Netziv reads all three verses as one prayer: that God should give him protection, food, clothing, and return him to his father’s house in peace.

For the Netziv, Yaakov’s prayer to be returned home is central because it is in the Land of Israel, which was understood as a place of protection and heightened spirituality. (Cf. Ramban on these verses.) However, reading all three verses as one prayer doesn’t explain the phrase: “and Adonai will be God to me.” To solve this part of the puzzle, the Netziv explains that this phrase is not conditional, but in fact a great declaration of faith: Yaakov is saying that even in the Land of Israel, where Divine blessings and protection are more easily perceived, he will not rely on physical strength, but will remember to have faith in the Divine.

This is a fascinating interpretation, suggesting that Yaakov knew that receiving a great blessing is its own kind of test of faith. As I suggested last week as well, it’s a common human character trait to take good things for granted, even things for which we’ve worked and prayed long hours. A little child promises to take the dog for a walk every day, but soon has to be reminded over and over again to take care of her pet. A couple gets married out of a great love for each other, but soon in the grind of daily living, honest communication and real listening just sort of get forgotten. A rabbi graduates rabbinical school with great ideals for Torah learning and personal observance, and then in the rush of weekly activities, there just doesn’t seem to be the time to pick up a book (trust me on this one!).

You get the idea here: Yaakov may have wanted more than anything to get back to the Promised Land, but the midrash suggests he knew that the real challenge wasn’t getting there, it was doing the work of fulfilling his potential there. The Land may offer great physical and spiritual blessings, but if Yaakov “slacked off” and took them for granted, he would be no better off than before. It’s the same for us: we might hope and pray for a relationship, a new job, children, a happy home, and may other wonderful things, but the hard part is realizing what you’ve been blessed with and continuing your commitment to growth, gratitude, and the hard work of sustained relationships, whether with God or a person. We make all kinds of prayers and promises to God in hard times; the trick is to remember to “let the Holy One be a God to you” when you’ve reached the place you’ve been yearning to be.

*quoted in HaGaot B’Parshiot HaTorah, by Yehudah Nachshoni, a book of essays in Hebrew that compare and contrast different perspectives on difficult passages in the Torah.

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