True, mature faith has no place for quid pro quos

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is The Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Charan. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it…Jacob awoke from his slumber and exclaimed, “Surely Elohim is present in this place, and I (VeAnochi) did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! Mah Norah HaMakom HaZeh! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to the heavens.”(Genesis 28:10-17)

No matter how many times I review this section of our sacred scriptures, I am struck by the fact that our patriarch Jacob seems dumfounded and does not to know what to do with his revelatory experience.  He babbles on about “this place being awesome, the house of God, and a gateway to the heavens”. But to me, Jacob’s words feel empty – platitudes, banalities, and clichés! I think we all know too well what is happening here. Jacob feels the need – as we often do – to fill the deafening and uncomfortable silences that arise in those incomprehensible and inexplicable moments of our lives with some kind of noise.

And then as his babblings ring hollow, even to himself, Jacob endeavors to fill the void with something else, a ritual. This too feels trivial and futile, so Jacob employs yet another technique – bargaining. God had just promised to be present to Jacob and his descendants in perpetuity and all Jacob can do is look to cut a deal with the Master of All Things? “If You’ll do what You just said, God, then You can be my God.”

Jacob should have responded, “You alone are my God! While I deserve Your condemnation for my many shortcomings, transgressions and trespasses, You have shown me Your grace and great kindness! I surrender myself and everything I have totally to You!” But instead, Jacob tells God that if God will come through as God has promised, Jacob will make Him his God, set up an abode for Him at Bethel, and give God a whopping ten percent of all Jacob has. Really? That’s the best Jacob – the progenitor of the Jewish People – can do? Jacob’s response shows that he still doesn’t get it! God’s promises to Jacob are all unconditional and Jacob’s promises to God are all conditional. Thank God that God deals with us mortals in unconditional terms or who knows whether or not we would even be here today? 

Yet for me, this section of our Torah holds great meaning and consequence. Note that God did not chastise or rebuke Jacob. God did not say: “You’ve got to be kidding Me! If you can’t accept My word, the deal is off.” Instead, God lets it go and graciously and patiently, kept working with and on Jacob. It would take 20 hard years of labor with Laban, a night of wrestling with an Angel of God, and a terrifying encounter with his estranged brother Esau, to smooth out Jacob’s rough edges, but God kept at it and God never gave up! 

And you know what? Though it was an inadequate response on Jacob’s part, God accepted it and began to shape Jacob into the kind of man he needed to be, the kind of person we needed him to be as he, in his later, more mature iteration, becomes Yisrael, our people’s eternal namesake and the paragon and paradigm of dedication and devotion to the Divine.

Friends – I am convinced that this is often how God begins with you and me. God enters our lives at the moment of our greatest need; moments of unanticipated openness, awareness or crisis. Moments when we are looking for tricks and shortcuts. Moments when we want to bargain and make deals with the Almighty. I know this from my 25 years of being a Rabbi and working with thousands of people as they face existential crises. And I know very personally from being a survivor of cancer. We – more often than we would care to admit – default to banalities and deal making and it is not only ineffective, it is beneath us!

The tale of Jacob’s epiphany in our Parashah comes to teach us a deep and sophisticated life lesson. It comes to help us see that a transactional relationship with the Divine is not only immature, it also has limited benefit and utility. For when things go south, when we are faced with reversal and adversity – which is a built-in reality of the human condition – we will need much more than a faith that relies on tit-for-tats and quid-pro-quos at its core. We will need to have developed a true AMOONA, a true, mature faith that has at its center the words of the Torah: “I, God, am with you, and will keep you wherever you go. And “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you”.

And all of this, dear friends, is possible to achieve if we take seriously one simple yet profound teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe who reminds us that “God is wherever – and whenever – we earnestly let God in to our lives”!

May we have the wisdom to do so – Bimhayrah Beyamenu – speedily and in our days! Amen! 

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.