In honor of the bar mitzvah of my nephew, Aryeh Krimsky, this Shabbos.
This week’s parsha opens with Yaakov Avinu’s famous journey from his parents’ home in Be’er sheva towards the northern city of Charan, identified by some historians as the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, which is situated about 140 miles northwest of Aleppo, Syria, and about 600 miles away from Be’er Sheva. Yaakov falls asleep and envisions a huge ladder with Hashem at its acme. Hashem appears to Yaakov, identifies Himself as the God of his father and grandfather and promises the land of Canaan to him and his progeny. Hashem them vows to watch over Yaakov, and return him safely to the Holy Land. Yaakov realizes that God appeared to him and erects a monument at the spot. Then the Torah says something that seems quite odd:
"וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֙נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ. וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵאלֹהִֽים." (בראשית כ"ח:כ-כ"א)
“Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God” (Bereshis 28:20-21).
I don’t know about you, but I learned back in elementary school that when you have a sentence that begins with an “if” and if there’s a “then” later on, you are offering a condition, or in the parlance of the current political debate, a quid pro quo. How can it be, that after Hashem promises Yaakov His Divine protection, Yaakov, instead of offering gratitude, seems to take a “wait and see” position. How can this be?
The commentaries’ alarm bells go off on these verses.
Ramban rejects what he describes as Rashi’s embrace of the condition. He understands Rashi as Yaakov fearing that bad behavior on his part could abrogate the Divine promise. Ramban explains the word “im” in verse 20 not as “if,” but rather, a common way of describing events in the future, i.e. “when.” Ramban claims Yaakov does not question God’s promise. Rather, he vows what he will do upon safe return to his homeland. The Ramban then mentions something cryptic and cites the Talmud (Kesuvos 110) that one who lives outside the land of Israel is considered as if he does not have a God. So, in a certain sense, Yaakov, who has never left the land of Canaan, embraces this notion that perhaps his mother expressed to him, that spirituality may cease when at the home of Lavan. Therefore, opines Ramban, Yaakov assumes that all will be in order upon his return.
Since in the U.S. we are in a preliminary election season, as is Great Britain and Israel (although in Israel that season seems to be quite common of late), I thought of a cute example of this. When non-incumbent candidates debate, some will say “When I become president” while others will exclaim, “If elected president.” Ramban seems to be describing Yaakov’s words as the former, not latter, candidate.
Seforno interprets Yaakov’s cryptic words as directed not to the Almighty, but rather, a “note to self.” “When I return from Charan,” reads the Seforno, “Hashem will judge me if I did not serve him with all of my vigor. Rabbi Chaim Attar, the Or Hachaim Hakadosh, similarly understands these verses as a motivational tool for Yaakov. “When I return after being cared for by Hashem, the Ribbono shel Olam will then be known as Elokay Yaakov, the God of Yaakov.”
Abarbanel cites Yaakov’s uncertainty about the dream he just experienced. Yaakov had never communicated with God prior to this encounter. He wasn’t sure if it was a Divine message, or just his imagination expressed via dreams. (The Midrash notes that much of the experiences in Yosef’s live parallel that of his father Yaakov. Here too we can find a source for the prevalence of dreams in the life of Yosef.)
Finally, it’s worth noting the comments of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym, “NeTzIV” in his commentary on Chumash known as the Emek Davar. First he suggests that Yaakov was concerned that Hashem’s promise was for his future offspring, not for himself. Therefore, he asked to be included in the promise. Additionally, The Netziv understands that Yaakov may have firmly believed in Hashem’s promise, but was hoping that he would not merely return – in tatters and ruined – but to be returned whole. Rivka may have warned her son about the ways of her father.
But what a minute! The Torah relates (Bereshis 15:1-8) that Hashem appeared to Avraham as well in a vision, informing Avraham not to fear for Hashem will be his shield and his reward will be great. Avraham politely asks how this will happen, as he is childless? Hashem assures Avraham that he will have offspring and takes him outside and challenges him to try to count the stars as a metaphor for his progeny. The Torah then says “and he (Avraham) trusted in Hashem, and he assumed it was God’s righteousness” (Ibid. verse 6.) Hashem then reiterates that He will give him the land as an inheritance. Avraham then says, (Ibid. verse 8) “My Lord, Hashem, how shall I know that I am to inherit it?” God then provided a shopping list to be obtained at the local farm to consummate the “Covenant of the Parts.”
Was Avraham’s question of God a challenge to his faith? Rashi (verse 6) seems to implicitly answer this question when he claims that Avraham was not seeking a sign, but rather, he said, “let me know through what merit they (my offspring) will last in the land.” Hashem responded through the merit of the sacrifices.
Obviously a prophet like Avraham (or Yaakov) believes the word of God. The question he had was what will the sign be? For Yaakov, it may have even been “Was that a Divine Revalation, or just a product of my creative imagination? Both Avraham and Yaakov knew that when Hashem made a covenant with Noach, there was a tangible sign (the rainbow). Nachalas Yaakov states that when Avraham didn’t ask for a sign, that was the proof that he believed.
None of the commentaries suggest that Yaakov lacked faith. He was trained by Rivka to believe in God. (This supports my theory that although all teachers are qualified to instruct all students, the best teacher for someone born into Yiddishkeit is a Ba’al Teshuvah, while an optimal teacher for someone newly observant is someone who was born into it and learned it both academically and through the behavior of progenitors, – EK).
I would offer the following as an epilogue to the comments of our sages, using as a base, Seforno’s heavy lifting. For those who studied Chumash in elementary school, remember when the teacher asked us “mi amar el mi?” – “who said to whom” - as a didactic way to make sure students understand the logical flow of verses. Perhaps these 3 verses (Bereshis 28:20-22) are not reflective of a two way conversation but rather of Yaakov stating it to himself. Yaakov expresses the words, but maybe he is talking to himself. He is scared, not only of the unexplored prospects of living in Charan with his charlatan uncle, but the Torah articulates that fear was a component of waking up after his vision (verse 17). Maybe Yaakov was psyching himself up. He was motivating himself for this upcoming frightening challenge.
Yaakov Avinu begins an incredibly important era in his life, one that places him in a crucible of challenge, one that will help solidify his piety, his faith and his position as the father of the 12 Tribes of Israel. As he embarks, he is deeply moved by the vision he experienced and he endeavors to use it as a motivator for the two decades ahead of him. While we may not have Divine visions to inspire us, we must learn from Yaakov’s faith in Hashem and his honest attempt at staying true to the lessons of his mother and father, lessons that are relevant and virtuous in our own lives.