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Torah Commentary
Vayeitzei (November 21, 2015)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

JACOB’S VOW IN PARASHAT VAYEITZEI is not the first story in the Torah that features someone bargaining with God. In Genesis 18: 23-32, a famous dialogue happens between Abraham and God in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is distressed that God plans to destroy the cities because of their wicked inhabitants. He begins by getting God to promise that if there are 50 righteous men in the cities, He will spare them. Eventually, Abraham gets the number down to 10, but later we learn that the cities were destroyed because they did not even contain 10 good men.

Jacob’s bargain, however, differs from Abraham’s in many respects. First, God does not appear to be a partner in this conversation. Jacob sets forth a number of conditions in the form of a prayer. We assume God hears, but he doesn’t answer, either in words or in the form of a thunder clap or a rainbow. Second, Jacob is not pleading for someone else; he is concerned with his own well-being. And finally, even though Jacob is fleeing his brother who wants to kill him, he doesn’t sound particularly desperate. Where Abraham is trying to forestall the destruction of two cities, Jacob is asking God for material goods – food, clothing and shelter. As we shall see, Jacob will have to provide those items for himself...and grow up in the process.

The prayer is more interesting as an insight into Jacob’s character at this point in the story than it is as a prediction of things to come. Will the prayer be answered? Yes, in a way. Jacob comes back from his years with Laban a rich man. (I peeked!) But what is important at this point is what it tells us about Jacob.

To review: Jacob, egged on by his mother, Rebecca, has stolen the birthright from his brother, Esau. When his misdeed is exposed, Esau is justifiably angry and threatens to kill him. Rebecca tells him to flee to her brother, Laban. On the way, Jacob lies down to sleep and dreams of a ladder, with angels going up and down. The voice of God speaks to him, saying that his descendants will be as numerous as “the dust of the earth” and shall spread out in all directions. God promises to protect and bless Jacob.

God’s promise to Jacob is very impressive! And all Jacob can manage in response is the vow quoted at the beginning of this essay, the one with all the “ifs” in it. It’s not very mature, but Jacob is not very mature at this point. Even his most audacious act, the theft of the birthright, was instigated by his mother.

We are at the beginning of a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. In the course of the story, Jacob not only will acquire two wives and 13 children, but he will become another person, Israel, the father of a nation.

When Jacob comes back from Haran, the land of Laban, he again will have a dream and make a vow. But that vow will be very different from the vow in this section. It will be the prayer of a man, not a boy. The man will know that he has sinned and will fear the consequences. He will be a grownup, a person who acknowledges his past misdeeds and is ready to atone for them. And, as a result, he will become Israel, the father of his people.

But we don’t know that at this point. We are at the beginning of the story of Israel and his descendants. What is worth noting at this point is what the ladder story shows us: that God is looking out for Jacob, even though he is not worthy of His love and protection. There must be a reason we are being told these stories, tales that have been passed on for countless generations. The characters in them are not angels; they are real people, flawed people, people like ourselves. That is what makes them so fascinating. And so, we read on.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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