Sonny was late for a very important meeting, circling around looking for a parking spot. “Please God” he says, “if you find me a spot, I promise to come to Mass every Sunday for the rest of my life!” Almost immediately a spot opens up, and as he drives into it he again lifts his eyes heavenwards and says: “Never mind, I found one myself…”
Betting with the Almighty is the desperate soul’s classic technique. Classic perhaps – but not so Jewish. (1):
Antigonos said: do not be like servants who serve God on the condition to receive reward
Yaakov enters phase two of his life. Sixty three years of tranquility are but a fond memory. Fleeing from Eisav in order to make it to the house of Uncle Lavan does not make Yaakov’s situation an admirable one. Yaakov sleeps and dreams of angels and ladders. God promises him protection:
And behold Hashem stood above it (the ladder), and said, “I am Hashem … The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you and to your descendants…Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth.. Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”
Yaakov is shaken and stirred by the turn of events:
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of El-him, and this is the gate of heaven.”
He makes his famous oath
“If Elokim will be with me, and guards me on this path that I am going, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear; And if I return in peace to my father’s house, then Hashem will be my G-d; and this stone which I have set [as] a monument will become a House of G-d, and of all that You give, I will surely give a tenth to You.
The commentators go wild. Does this not seem like a wager with the Lord? It sounds like: If You do Your part, then I’ll make you my God. Further, hadn’t God just promised Yaakov that I will bring you back to this land? Whither Yaakov’s faith?
Rashi’s major thrust is that Yaakov understands God’s guarantee as being conditional – shema yigrom hacheit. Perhaps the next several years will sully Yaakov’s spirit; with Lavan as host, can holiness be assured? Thus Yaakov’s oath is part prayer and part motivator:
God, I am worried that I will not merit your protection. If You will be with me and help me and my children overcome, thus allowing me to serve You – then I shall never forget your extreme kindness. The moment I return back to my beloved Israel, I shall erect a monument and tithe everything that You shall give me.
Rashi’s approach reminds us that great people do not bank on their greatness. They walk around with a sense of healthy inner angst and create systems to protect themselves. Yaakov’s oath – more than a simple expression of healthy fear was probably also a means of summoning all his strength to the immense task that lay ahead. Chassidic thought teaches that shevua (oath) and sheva (the number seven) are related insofar as an oath summons all of one’s resident natural forces to an immense task at hand, creating a type of spiritual adrenaline (2).
Ramban’s emphasis is upon the sod ha’aretz, the mystical spirituality that is Eretz Yisrael. It is a theme he develops throughout his commentary (3). All mitzvos mean more in Eretz Yisrael. Thus the Sifri makes the stunning comment, that on a theological level, all mitzvos done outside the land, while Biblically mandated, are “practice” for the main theater, i.e. their performance in the Holy Land. Hashem’s intense and direct presence in Eretz Yisrael renders all other lands, relatively as being “without God” (4). Thus Yaakov is saying: God, I am leaving You. I don’t really want to go – but if you allow me to come back once again I will claim You as a God. Even as I am outside the land, I will surely be doing Your mitzvos, but it’s not the same. Goodbye for now.
One approach, (Seforno-based) touches the heart. Human nature waxes eternal. The same gnawing questions that plagued ancient man remain even as we have crafted different historic responses. Are not dualism, atheism, gnosticism and nihilism different responses to the same question of theodicy? The overwhelming presence of good in the world may not make the question any less tolerable. It is the appearance of a fractured world that is so troubling. A classic Rav Noach Weinberg story drives home the point:
A young man came into Aish HaTorah to meet with me. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’ve got news for you. I don’t need a yeshiva. You see, God and I are very close. God does miracles for me.”
I looked at him a little suspiciously. “Would you mind illustrating a miracle or two?”
“Sure. Once I was riding my motorcycle up a winding mountain road. A truck came around a curve and swerved into my lane. My only choice was to either smash into the side of the mountain, or to go off the cliff. Next thing I know, I’m flying through the air with nothing but rocks beneath me. I screamed out, ‘God! Help!’
“I hit the ground and it was a miracle. My bike landed between two rocks, which acted like shock absorbers and cushioned the impact. I was gently tossed off my bike into a hedge of bushes. I didn’t get a scratch! So you see, God does miracles for me.”
I looked at him and said, “Tell me, my friend. Who do you think pushed you off the cliff?”
Yaakov Avinu knew to his inner core, the unity of God, that Hashem echad, is one. He also knew, as Hashem had promised, that Hashem, the God of mercy will take care of him. But surely, Yaakov has a gnawing question: As he enters this new phase of his life – a radical departure from his tranquil Torah tent dwelling past, he wants to understand the rhythm and the meaning behind the madness. How did it happen? Where did it all go wrong? Why do I have to go? Yaakov experiences Elokim – the God of judgment, and hears from Hashem, the God of mercy – but does not see how it all comes together.
And so, as he is about to begin his journey – He turns to God and says: Open up my eyes and allow me to return b’shalom – to a place of completion – so I can see the whole picture. I want Hashem to be for me Elokim. And indeed as he returns with a full and beautiful family ready to face a new set of struggles, for but a brief moment Yaakov returns to Eretz Yisrael, b’shalom – enjoying a brief respite in the turbulent sea that is olam hazeh (this world).
Can you relate?
Good Shabbos – Asher Brander
1. Pirkei Avos, 1:3. Cf .however Rosh Hashanah 4a that one who donates money to tzedaka on the condition that his child shall live or that he shall attain the next world is called a tzaddik and is thus codified by Rambam. See Tosafos ibid for one of many solutions to the contradiction
2. One technical note: Rashi reads the phrase “and Hashem shall be for me as a God” as part of the conditional statement (the if clause) , i.e. If God shall be for me as Elokim, then I shall erect a monument etc. – the notion being – If God chooses me and sees me as being worthy. This is different than our translation. It is quite fitting that (according to Rashi) Yaakov on his return informs Eisav im lavan garti v’taryag mitzvos shamarti – as if to say – don’t start up with me for I remain under God’s protection.
3. Cf. Ramban end of Acharei Mos
4. Cf Ketubot 110
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.