Parshat Vayetze – פרשת ויצא


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Parshat Vayetze – פרשת ויצא

November 25, 2017 – ז כסלו תשעח


Jacob’s Vow


God spoke to Jacob at Bethel, promising him that his offspring would be numerous and would inherit the land of Canaan.  Of more immediate concern to Jacob, God promised to safeguard him during his sojourn in Haran and to bring him back home.  Jacob was in a deep sleep during this communication from the Divine.  Upon awakening, he set up a monument and made the following vow: “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 safely to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I shall set aside a tithe for You (Genesis 28:20-22).”  (JPS translation)


Jephthah, Hannah, and Absalom all made vows in which they promised to perform special acts of religious devotion if God heeded their respective requests.  At the moment that each made his or her bargain with God, the outcome of their respective situations was uncertain.  Not so in Jacob’s case.   God had already given him His unconditional guaranty of safety and success.  Why, then, did Jacob feel the need to propitiate God with the conditional promise of worship and tithing?  Are we to conclude that Jacob doubted the explicit word of God and felt it necessary to offer the promise of future piety as a means of assuring himself of Divine protection?


The sages could not tolerate such an interpretation.  Accordingly, Rabbis Abbahu and Jonathan suggested two alternate understandings (Genesis Rabbah 70:4):


(a) Scripture records the events out of chronological order.  Jacob articulated his vow, but only thereafter did the Heavenly voice promise him a safe return to the Holy Land מסורסת היא הפרשה.  This interpretation seems woefully inadequate.  Granted, the Pentateuch sometimes lacks precise chronological order.  Yet that is true only with respect to the placement in Scripture of unrelated tales אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה בתרי ענייני.  In the course of narrating any particular episode, the text does recount the story in sequence אבל בחד עניינא מאי דקדים מוקדם ומאי דמאוחר מאוחר (Pesahim 6b).


(b) Jacob’s utterance was not a conditional vow.  He never doubted God’s word.  He fully expected to have to fulfill his promises of tithing and worshipping God at that sacred spot upon his safe return from his journey abroad.  Jacob’s vow merely indicated the anticipated sequence of events:   First, God would do His part in providing protection, and then Jacob would satisfy his voluntarily-imposed obligations.  While this approach is reasonable, it virtually forces the reader to translate אם as “when” instead of the more conventional rendering “if.”


One part of Jacob’s vow is particularly cryptic: “The Lord shall be my God והיה יי לי לאלקים (28:21).”  Is that clause the end of the first half of the vow (the last in a series of demands made by Jacob for God to fulfill), or is it the beginning of the second half of the vow (the first in a series of religious burdens Jacob imposes upon himself)?  Rabbinic literature and the medieval commentators are divided on this point.  The JPS translation above is that this clause is not a condition for God to fulfill, but a preamble to Jacob’s list of future intended devotions. 


It is instructive also to consider these other translations:

Art Scroll:  “If God will be with me . . . and Hashem will be a God to me – then this stone . . .”

Robert Alter:  “If the Lord God be with me . . . then the Lord will be my God.  And this stone that I set as a pillar . . . Everett Fox:  “If God will be with me . . .  — Hashem shall be God to me. . .”


Prof. Alter comments in his notes to 28:20:  “The conditional form of the vow – if the other party does such and such, then I on my part will do such and such in return – is well attested elsewhere in the Bible and in other ancient Near Eastern texts.  But its use by Jacob has a characterizing particularity.  God has already promised him in the dream that He will do all these things for him.  Jacob, however, remains the suspicious bargainer – a ‘wrestler’ with words and conditions just as he is a physical wrestler, a heel-grabber.  He carefully stipulated conditions of sale to the famished Esau; he was leery that he would be found out when Rebekah proposed her stratagem of deception to him; now he wants to be sure God will fulfill His side of the bargain before he commits himself to God’s service; and later he will prove to be a sharp dealer in his transactions with his uncle Laban.”


There is a serious theological problem with the view that “the Lord shall be my God” is a conditional promise by the patriarch Jacob.  The unstated alternative to Jacob’s safe return and subsequent service to God is that he does not find his way back to Canaan and, consequently, rejects the Lord.  But such a state of mind by Jacob would be wholly at war with the basic Judaic tenet requiring acceptance of the judgments of the Kingdom of Heaven, whether, seemingly, they are “good” (in our eyes) or not.  (It is, for example, automatic that, when learning of someone’s death – and that includes the death of an immediate family member — we are required to say, and we do say, “Baruch dayan ha-emet.”)  For Jacob even to imply that he would reject God if things did not go the way Jacob wanted them to would constitute heresy on Jacob’s part; and, understandably, even coming near such a conclusion was anathema to the sages עלה על לב שהיה יעקב אבינו אומר ואם לאו אינו לי לאלקים (Sifre Deuteronomy 31).  Creative reinterpretation to keep such a conclusion at a safe distance was required.


Sifre (followed by Rashi) asserts that “the Lord shall be my God” is a condition for God to fulfill.  Jacob wanted God’s name to be eternally associated with his family. He insisted upon a guaranty from God that all his progeny would be members of the covenant and none would be wayward שלא תצא ממנו פסולת.  Jacob had reason to be concerned, since both Abraham’s son Ishmael and Isaac’s son Esau were excluded from the covenant.  The Midrash claims that Jacob knew that God heeded his request when, even after Reuben consorted with Bilhah, a Heavenly voice proclaimed that “the sons of Jacob are twelve (Genesis 35:22).”  Notwithstanding that Jacob’s first-born had committed a grievous sin against his father, still, all twelve of Jacob’s sons were recognized as members of the Chosen People.  There is, however, a difficulty with this Midrash.  It is that Jacob had already carried out his end of the bargain some time earlier when consecrating a monument pillar upon his return to Bethel (35:14).  Had Jacob been waiting for a Heavenly message that all his twelve sons were destined to remain in the fold, his earlier worship at Bethel would have been premature.


Rashbam, similarly, understands “the Lord shall be my God” to be a condition set by Jacob that the Almighty would assist him in all his endeavors שיסעייני בכל מעשיי.  Kli Yakar suggests that Jacob requested to be judged not solely by God’s attribute of strict justice – as represented by the name אלקים — but in combination with God’s attribute of mercy, as represented by the name יקוק.


Tosefta (followed by Ramban and Rabbenu Bachya) understands “the Lord shall be my God” to be part of Jacob’s set of responsibilities (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:5).  At issue, in this view, was not whether Jacob would accept God’s sovereignty, something that could be presupposed.  Rather, Jacob’s safe return to the Holy Land would enable him to serve God on a much higher spiritual plane.  Rabbinic literature often comments that a Jew living in the Land of Israel is considered as having a God, while a Jew living in the Diaspora is considering as not having a Godכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלו-ה וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלו-ה (Ketubot 110b).  While such hyperbolic rhetoric was originally intended to serve the secular nationalist purpose of preventing Jews from fleeing the Holy Land in times of turmoil, it nevertheless contains an element of religious truth, since Scripture does assert a direct connection between dwelling in the land and cultivating a relationship with God: “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God (Leviticus 25:38).”


Tosefta’s distinction between Canaan and foreign lands fits neatly with our knowledge of religious history.  Ancient man had a primitive theology that embraced the notion of territorial gods.  Each local deity was considered to hold sway over a particular geographic area and thus could be effectively worshipped only in that region.  David alludes to the point in describing the negative religious impact upon him caused by his desperate flight to the Land of the Philistines when he was trying to escape the wrath of Saul (Sifra Behar 5): “For they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of the Lord, saying: Go serve other gods (I Samuel 26:19).”  Naaman, the Assyrian general whose leprosy was cured by Elisha, came to realize the great power of the Hebrew God.  Upon leaving the Holy Land, he took with him two mules’ burden of sacred dirt so that he might be able to worship the Hebrew God in a foreign land (2 Kings 5:17).  The exiles to Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple thought it impossible to sing the songs of the Hebrew God in a strange land (Psalms 137:4).  Radak notes that the problem was not that inhabitants of the foreign land are non-Hebrews, but that foreign land is, territorially, the province of another deity אדמת אל נכר.  The revolutionary theological notion that the Jewish God, as creator of the entire world, could be properly worshipped anywhere, took time to develop. 


According to the Midrash, the story of Jacob’s vow was included in Scripture to teach us that it is appropriate to make vows in a moment of crisis מלמד שיהו נודרין בעת צרה (Genesis Rabbah 70:28).  There is, in emergencies, a natural human tendency to try to make deals with God.  We promise God to do such and such, to be “better,” if only He will get us out of the serious jam we then face.  This conversation, like prayer in general and all petitionary prayer in particular, is entirely one-sided.  We don’t hear, directly, when we propose such an arrangement, whether God assents to it or not.  We learn only afterward what the facts are.  (We are rescued; or, we are not).  We never hear either assent or rejection from God; nor are we ever shown a “proof” of cause and effect with regard to our petition, prayer, or proposal and subsequent events.  We pray and/or propose deals to God; that act is, seemingly, one-sided; the future unfolds.   Judaism approves of such petitions. 


The great esteem in which we hold Jacob Avinu prevents us from regarding his statement “the Lord shall be my God” as a conditional one.  But there are certainly those for whom vows do function in that way.  If God does not give them everything they ask for, they reject His existence and they conclude that prayer is inefficacious.  They do not recognize that sometimes God answers prayers with a “no” rather than with a “yes,” and that that does not mean that He did not hear, or did not answer, the petition, or that He does not exist.  


The most significant lesson of Jacob’s story is the proper reaction to a granting by God of requests or “demands.” When a terrifying moment – from which one has petitioned God for delivery — has passed, there is a tendency for a petitioner to backslide to old habits and conveniently to “forget” his vows.  Such behavior is unacceptable.   It mocks faith.  After twenty years of service to Laban, Jacob returned to the land of his fathers.  And then he fulfilled his pledge to God.  Any of us fortunate enough to experience God’s saving grace, after having made a vow or promise to Him, must do the same.