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Torah Commentary
Vayeitzei (December 3, 2011)

Leah Kadosh, Coordinator of School and Family Learning

PERHAPS MY FAVORITE biblical teaching comes from Genesis 28:16: “God was in this place, and I — I did not know.” Jacob wakes up from a dream in which God has revealed to him his blessing: God will protect him, his decedents will be as numerous as “the dust of the earth,” and God will not leave him until this promise is fulfilled. Jacob is alone in the desert, running away from potential danger, just having deceived his dying father and stolen his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob’s revelation of the Divine Presence and missed opportunity is one of great misfortune, and yet in his mistake, it grants the Jewish people the prospect to learn and seek God’s wonders and miracles in every aspect of life. This depleted encounter serves as our reminder to take advantage of every moment, question, encounter and celebration. Jacob introduces a new relationship with God in this Torah portion, one that is not mandated and blindly accepted, but rather, one that is conflicting, challenging and even conditional.

Immediately after his revelation of God’s presence and holiness, Jacob pronounces a puzzling statement. He declares that if, and only if, God grants him all that was stated in his dream, he will accept God as his God. Instead of Jacob realizing his grand oversight — “God was in this place, and I — I did not know” — he begins to negotiate. Talk about chutzpah! Our final patriarch has a lot of growing and wrestling to do!

As learners of Torah, we are left wondering why Jacob reacts in this manner. Why is Jacob not remorseful of his recent actions? Why does he take God’s blessing for granted? How could he have not realized God’s presence? Our Religious School students are taught early on that God is everywhere. In the very first chapter of the Torah, we are reminded that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and that a spark of God lives in each of us. (Jacob must not have attended Congregation Emanu-El’s Religious School!) Jacob realizes his mistake, although he does not seem to understand its magnitude. The Torah tells stories of heroes and heroines, villains, kings and queens, schlemiels and schlimazels, and ordinary people — all who make mistakes. Our matriarchs and patriarchs are not perfect, and therefore, we are challenged to learn from their wrongdoings.

Jacob finds himself here at a crossroads in his life; he has run away from home and must start over by entering into a new family and figuring out his place in his holy and selected lineage. He differs from his ancestors; his grandfather Abraham was commanded to “go to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1), and Abraham, without dialogue, followed God’s instructions. God tests Abraham’s faith when asking him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (Gen. 22:2), and again, Abraham listens without question. Abraham’s grandson is different; he does not follow blindly, but rather he challenges his Creator: If God proves what was stated in the dream, then “the LORD shall be my God.” (Gen. 28:21) Jacob is willing to believe in one God, although he establishes a conditional relationship. God must uphold the blessing, and only after, will he be faithful.

Jacob was born to wrestle. Having grasped his twin’s heel at birth, he finally overcomes his younger-son status and steals his brother’s identity, birthright and blessing. We read of Jacob here in his early stage of development. He questions the world around him and wishes to engage in a genuine relationship with God: one that is not based on mandated belief but, rather, on foundational acceptance. In later chapters, Jacob receives a new name, Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.” (Gen. 32:29) Each of us, like Jacob, has a unique relationship with God. Whether one believes in God or not, we struggle within ourselves to establish the relationship that is individually appropriate and meaningful. Jacob becomes our example. This encouragement of “wrestling with God” could not be more relevant than in our modern era. So pivotal of an idea, it is the name of our homeland.

We are left with many prospects in this Torah portion: We learn from the mistakes of our patriarchs and matriarchs; we are encouraged to take advantage of their missed opportunities; and we are exposed to a new relationship with God. Perhaps Jacob did not know that “God was in this place…,” but we certainly do.


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