Getting close to God


By Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow

This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis 28:10 – 32:3.

Nowhere do we find the God of immanence more than in the stories of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. There is no such thing as a transcendent God, one who is unapproachable.

The God of Jacob is an ever-accessible God, always at the ready to respond to the one who loves and needs him.

Anyone who thinks, incorrectly, that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God of vengeance and rebuke, only needs to see how near, caring and devoted is the God of Israel.

Jacob, the third patriarch, is spending an extended sojourn in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Aram Naharaim, known as Mesopotamia (now Iraq). He has fallen in love with Rachel, married her and her sister Leah, and is given two other women as concubine wives, Bilhah and Zilpah.

He comes to a point where a decision needs to be made: Can he remain in Aram Naharaim, or should he return home to Canaan/Israel where his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac, established the future for their descendants?

The 30th chapter of Genesis presents us with a Jacob who is responsible for the flocks of his father-in-law, Laban, and needs to come up with a method of coming to an amicable solution to receive a just payment for his devoted labor.

The method of his choosing is difficult to comprehend. It involves the separation of his wages in animals of a certain coloring, from the general herd. Through no fault of his own, he appears to have defrauded his somewhat unsavory father-in-law.

God reassures Jacob of the steadfastness of His promise to him. “Then God said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you’” (31:3). This promise harkens back to God’s original promise to Jacob at the time of his flight from the hands of his brother Esau in Be’er-Sheva, where later at Beth-el “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” (28:12).

At the beginning of the Torah portion, God gives His clearest and strongest assurance to Jacob, in this dream, that He will never abandon him. “God was standing beside him [Jacob] and He said, ‘I am God, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants” (28:13-14).

And so it is here, as he readies himself for his return journey that he proclaims:

“And in the dream an angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here,’ I answered … I am the God Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land’” (31:11, 13).

The God of Jacob is a God who is, as the psalmist sings, “God is near to all who call, to all who call to God in truth (Psalms 145:18).

Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain, with his last duty station the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda (known today as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center).

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