Monday, December 5, 2011


Genesis 28:10 - 32:3

In this week's parashah, Jacob begins his long journey, both physically and spiritually, from his home and family. Shortly after he leaves home, God appears to Jacob in a dream, presenting the image of the ladder from heaven to Earth. God speaks to Jacob and promises him protection, offspring, and the land on which he lay.
Jacob then travels on to Haran, where he meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, the daughter of his mother's brother Laban. Jacob arranges with Laban to work seven years to marry Rachel. However Laban, who has something of a shady reputation, substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel on her wedding night. Jacob confronts Laban, but is told, ironically, that the older has precedent over the younger. Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel as well.
Years pass and the sisters, as well as their servants who are given to Jacob as concubines, bear Jacob twelve sons and a daughter. These sons will become the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of the portion, Jacob and his family depart from Haran and from Laban, and begin their journey back to Canaan.
Perhaps the most interesting and thought-provoking episode in Jacob’s travel is the night he encounters God in a vision, although, during the vision, he does not recognize this as such. Various interpretations have been advanced for this vision, even entire books into which some attempt to compile all the versions, past and present. The curious reader is encouraged to explore these at his leisure. Whatever you might conclude from this vision, the one thing you should remember is that God spoke to Jacob at some part of the vision, reassuring him of His continued support and providence. Jacob 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 Eternal shall be my God." (Genesis 28:20-22)
This passage seems to be conditional. Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau and embarking out on his own for the first time, is a solitary man in the wilderness.
Jacob, awaking from his dream-filled sleep, perceives that something important has happened, but he does not seem entirely sure. And so Jacob responds cautiously. IF, in fact, God does do everything that was promised in the dream, THEN Jacob will be faithful to God.
Out on his own for the first time, embarking on a journey which, like his grandfather Abraham's journey before him, is both spiritual as well as physical, Jacob must establish his own relationship with God. At this point, the Brit--the covenant established at first with Abraham--is individual, and must be reaffirmed by each generation. A covenant, like any contract, has two sides, and both parties must meet their obligations to the contract. So when Jacob, alone in the desert, has his first theophany, his first personal encounter with God, it serves to reestablish the covenant with this new generation. God offers the standard terms: to care for Jacob, to grant him many descendants, and give him the promised land as a home. Jacob agrees to those terms, responding first by restating, in his own words, God's part of the deal, and then agreeing to accept God's sovereignty. Viewed this way, Jacob's response is only conditional in the way any contract or agreement is conditional. Many classic commentators read the passage in this way, really accepting the simple reading of the text. But not all of our tradition is comfortable with Jacob putting conditions on God. After all, God has already vowed to do all these things for Jacob. So by stating 'im--"IF you do these things for me, THEN...," could Jacob possibly be doubting God?
The midrash, looking at the words very closely, prefers to read 'im as a form of promise - "if God does all of these things for me, then I will be protected from temptation and sin, and will have no problem being faithful to God." (Paraphrase from Bereshit Rabbah 70:4). Jacob's vow is an exclamation of joy over God's protection. He does not doubt that God will keep the covenant; he doubts whether he himself will be able to uphold his commitment. With God's support, it should not be difficult.
More than anything, our patriarchs and matriarchs stand as examples of how we can establish an individual relationship with God. For each of them, their relationship with God was formally established and affirmed at just the right point in their lives, when they were ready. For each, their relationship was unique, and for each, their relationship evolved as they grew and changed. But, like any healthy positive relationship, a relationship with God must be built on trust. It can't be conditional. Lack of faith in the other always results in dire consequences. With God, it is we who are the weak ones. It is we who are getting the better end of the deal. If God is willing to enter into a covenantal relationship with us, and trust us, despite all of our shortcomings, how much more so should we trust God?
In the Brit Hadashah, we meet with an episode of the same type vision which Jacob had when Yeshua encounters Nathanael. Yeshua relates to Nathanael that before he physically met him, He saw him under a fig tree. Nathanael expresses the same degree of astonishment as had Jacob in his vision. Yeshua further relates : “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And He said to him, ‘Amen, amen I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Ben Elohim.”
The greatest of “these things” is His love, a love that stoops to embrace us whatever and wherever we are, inviting us to enter into a covenant with Him, thereby giving us a new hold on life and holiness and allowing us to see the “glory of the only begotten Son of God.”

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