This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis: 28:10-32:3.
In this parsha we meet Jacob as he is on the run from his brother Esau. One would assume that he is afraid, lonely, missing his mom and unsure of what is to come. He falls asleep in a place that is holy but he doesn’t sense the holiness until after he has that amazing dream of the ladder and the angels. Upon awakening he says, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (28:16)
I love this story because it shows what Judaism is all about — taking the ordinary and elevating it to holiness. We all have moments like this in our lives, perhaps the birth of a child or seeing a rainbow. Jacob falls asleep in what he assumes is this regular piece of land, but upon arising realizes that the place is steeped in holiness. He marks the place to commemorate the holiness. We can do that in our everyday life in many different ways.
It’s what happens next that has always bothered me.
After Jacob marks the location, instead of thinking about how to incorporate this into his life, he strikes a bargain with God disguised in the form of a vow: “If God stays with me, if God protects me, if God provides for me, if I return safely, then I will believe in You, then “the Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-22) Midrash has various explanations that try to prove that this is indeed a vow and not a bargain, including the idea that the Torah actually flips the order in which these events occurred such that Jacob’s vow actually came before the revelation in the dream. Thus, the dream is a response from God to Jacob’s vow/bargain. The second is that Jacob is pledging himself to specific behaviors in gratitude to God for the promise made to his ancestors and that will be fulfilled.
I am choosing to follow the order of the events in the Torah and interpret them accordingly. Jacob goes to sleep along the road and experiences a dream that includes a visible manifestation of God. He wakes up full of awe and appreciation of how the ordinary in one’s life can become extraordinary and holy. But instead of running with that feeling, he acts in a very human way and decides to take advantage of the moment. He thinks “OK, God, now that I know firsthand that you are with me, I am going to ask you to alleviate my deepest concerns. And if you do that, then I will believe in and follow you always.”
Not everyone will agree with my reading. It’s distressing when we see one of our patriarchs do something that lessens him in our eyes. Jacob, however, is one of our ancestors who revels in his humanity with all its frailties. In this reading, Jacob is every person. He has parents who love him but they too are flawed and their flaws impact Jacob’s every action. He does wonderful things, but makes some colossal mistakes. Jacob receives proof of God’s presence, and instead of integrating that into is his life, he proceeds to bargain with the Holy One in his if-then scenario.
Jacob is all of us. We forget that there is everyday holiness. When we notice it, we are awed — and then lapse back into our everyday lives, sometimes denying the very holiness we’ve just experienced. But when we are troubled or afraid, we know what to do. We turn to God and pray. We bargain bargains that are sometimes outrageous in scope but are designed to get us through the bad times. Later, after the crisis has passed, we forget the terms of our bargains and relapse into our everyday lives. We do this because we are human.
My dream for all of us is that we are able to recognize the holy in the world in both the good and the bad times. I pray that the bargains we strike, because we will strike bargains, are of a type that can be kept and that infuse our ordinary world with the holy and the extraordinary that is Judaism.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila in Olney.