Vayeitze: Asking for the Basics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week the Torah turns its attention to next generation in the
line of Avraham, and before the portion is finished, Ya’akov his
two wives, two concubines, and many children (talk about a
blended family!) have become secure and prosperous. However,
at the beginning of the parsha, things aren’t looking so good for
Ya’akov: he’s on the run from his brother, he’s all alone in the
wilderness, and he has nothing but rocks for a pillow. In his
lonely sleep, he has a life-changing and awesome dream of a
ladder (or stairway) to the heavens, and in this vision, God
reaffirms to Ya’akov the covenant with Avraham, his grandfather.
In response, Ya’akov makes his own commitment to the God of
his ancestors:

“And Ya’akov uttered a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and
will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will
give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and if I return in
peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God; then
this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a
house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe
to You.’ ” (Genesis 28:20-21)

Much has been written about Ya’akov’s vow, and a full exploration
will await another time. (See footnote.) For today, let’s focus on
the relatively simple requests that Ya’akov makes of God: bread,
clothing, and returning to his father’s house in peace. The Me’am
Loez, a Sephardic commentary, notes that Ya’akov asks for basic
needs, and relates this to a more general observation that
spiritually mature people are less likely to focus on material
desires and better able to feel gratitude for the simplest gifts of
life (i.e., like bread and basic clothing.)

We might even turn this insight around and say that an aspect of
religious or spiritual growth is precisely this ability to feel true
gratitude for “the basics.” Perhaps this is a turning point for
Ya’akov himself, who stole his brother’s birthright but now sees
that much less than a kingdom can make him grateful to God.

So far, so good. Yet there’s another part of Ya’akov’s request,
which is to “return in peace to my father’s house.” In its simplest
meaning (or pshat, in Hebrew), it seems that Ya’akov is asking
for physical safety, and this would fit in with the idea that he’s
asking God for the essentials of life: food, clothing, physical

Let’s remember, however, that Ya’akov is on the run from his
brother, from whom he stole the birthright, after deceiving his
father – in other words, his father’s house is not a place of peace,
precisely because Ya’akov himself engaged in actions (in
cooperation with his mother) to break apart the family! So maybe,
on a deeper level, Ya’akov is asking for more than physical safety
along the way, but also for the power to find reconciliation and
the reestablishment of family bonds.

Human beings need bread and clothing, but we also need
relationships with loved ones. Ya’akov does, in fact, ask God for
the true essentials of human life, but these are not only physical
things: they are also emotional and spiritual. To be full human
beingse we need the spiritual gifts of love, relationship, and
reconciliation as much as we need bread and clothing – and this
realization is crucial not only for our forefather Ya’akov, but for
as well.

Footnote: You can look here for more that I’ve written about the
topic of Ya’akov’s vow: )

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