Jacob’s story speaks to our own paths to belief

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

Jacob brought his brother’s anger upon himself in last week’s Torah portion, Toldot, when he tricked the blind Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing.  Esau vowed to kill his fraternal twin brother following his father’s death. Rebecca, ever the director behind the scenes, planted the germ of an idea which would save Jacob’s life in the mind of Isaac. Pointing to the Canaanite wife which Esau had made and the dissatisfaction which she had brought to the household, Rebecca suggested that Isaac send Jacob back to her family in Padan Aram to find a more suitable spouse. By so doing, Rebecca was also saving Jacob from Esau’s wrathful vow.

Jacob was described in last week’s parashah as a homebody.  He was not the great outdoorsman that his brother was.  Therefore, as this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (and [Jacob] left [Be’er Sheva]), opens, Jacob is nervous about being on the road alone, having previously always enjoyed the protection of family. 

That first night, there being no motel or inn, Jacob takes a rock and finds a clear spot on which to lie down and sleep. He has the most fantastic dream! He dreams of a ladder or staircase that reaches all the way from the earth to the heaven, and ascending and descending upon it are heavenly beings. 

In the dream, God promises that the land upon which he is sleeping and in all directions as far as he can see and even farther is Jacob’s in perpetuity, just as God promised to Abraham and Isaac before him. And as God had previously promised his grandfather and father, Jacob’s descendants would be so numerous that it would be like counting the individual pieces of dust on the earth.  God promises to watch over Jacob on his journey and to return him to the Land, never abandoning Jacob.

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As Jacob awakens from this fantastic dream, he sets the stone upon which he slept upright, pours oil over it, indicating that it is set apart from all others, and declares, “How awesome is this place.  It is none other than a Beit Elohim, God’s house, and I, I did not know it.”  Jacob then names the spot Beit-El.  Jacob has experienced the Ineffable, an auspicious beginning to his journey, indeed.

Given this experience of the renewal of the Covenant now between God and Jacob and the awesome feelings engendered by it, it is all the more strange that Jacob should then continue saying the following: “If God will be with me, watching over me on this road upon which I am walking, giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return peacefully intact to my ancestral home, then Adonai will become my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21) It seems strange that Jacob would pronounce this affirmation of God in the conditional, rather than in the absolute.

Yet, there is from this passage an important insight for all.  When God was revealed to Jacob in the dream/vision that night, it was as the God of his grandfather, Abraham, and as the God of his father, Isaac.  In order for Jacob to truly experience God in his own way, he had to have experience of God independent of his father and grandfather. Having never left home prior to that day, Jacob had no such experience and merely acknowledged the God Whom he had inherited, Who was in a unique relationship with his parents and grandparents.  As Jacob went on to live life independently, he came to understand God in his own way, in his own terms, utilizing his own life experiences and his own insights into the nature of God and how God acts in the world.

We cannot just inherit a belief in God from our parents and grandparents. We cannot have a belief in God transferred into us by our teachers, our rabbis and our Jewish role models. We experience God through them, to be certain, as well through our studies and through our own individual prayer.  However, it is only after we have lived for a while, independent of those major influences in our lives, that we really can claim God as our own. 

Ultimately, Jacob will wrestle all night with an unidentified adversary many years from this first night on the road.  As a result of this match, he will earn a new name – Yisra’el:  the one who struggles with beings, human and Divine, and prevails.  We are all Yisra’el when we struggle with the experiences of our lives and come to our own understanding of God.

Shabbat Shalom!

D’var Torah – Vayetze

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.