By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky | Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Louis Stein Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, JTS
posted on December 5, 2008 / 8 Kislev 5769
This week's Torah reading, Parashat Va-yetzei, begins with Jacob's famous dream, in which he sees a ladder stretching all the way up to the very heavens. The dream ends with God's promise to him that "the ground that you are lying upon I will give to you and your offspring. Your seed shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth, you shall spread out to the west, east, to the north and south . . . "
I will resist the urge to play Freud and interpret the meaning of the ladder in this dream (hint: it is related to the promise of many offspring), preferring instead to read on a bit in the Torah to the next paragraph:
"Jacob woke from his sleep and said, `Surely, God is in this place and I did not know it!' Jacob then took a vow saying, `IF God remains with me, IF God protects me on this journey I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and IF I return safe to my father's house—THEN the Lord shall be my God . . . '"
The Rabbis of our classical texts don't know what to do with this last set of verses that seem so conditional. Is it possible that our ancestor Jacob, that apparently unrepentant trickster, is bargaining here with God? After an enormously consoling dream-promise from God, to a young man who is, after all, fleeing for his life, Jacob has the temerity to say, "IF God remains with me, IF, IF, IF . . . THEN THE Lord shall be my God." What could Jacob possibly have meant when he repeatedly spoke that IF?
One of the earliest rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, Sifre Devarim (number 31), dating from the third century of our Common Era, imagines the scene by coming at it from an obtuse angle:
"Did you ever wonder why it always says in Scripture, Speak to the Children of ISRAEL? Why not Speak to the Children of Abraham or Speak to the Children of Isaac? What did Jacob do that God's word was always directed at him, with literally hundreds of verses saying, Speak to the Children of ISRAEL??"
The midrash answers its own question thus: "The distinction of having God's commandments directed at HIS offspring came to Jacob because he was a neurotic Jewish parent! Jacob worried all his life: Oy, what if one of my kids turns out to be a bum? After all, my Grandfather Abraham had Ishmael (and he was a bum), and my father Isaac had my brother Esau (and he was a bum). What if one of my kids turns out to be a bum?"
Now we have the necessary background to Jacob's vow in this week's Torah reading: "Jacob then made a vow saying, IF God remains with me . . . " The midrash asks, "Can it be that Jacob might actually think for a moment that if God doesn't remain with me, God won't be God?" After all, our midrash notes, the biblical passage ends, "THEN the Lord shall be my God . . . ," and so our midrash comments that what Jacob really meant was, "no matter what happens, God will be my God."
So why does Jacob even bother saying it? The midrash answers its own question: "What Jacob was actually saying in this verse of Scripture was a request of God. Jacob was asking, `Would that God might join His name to me, so that my kids just turn out to be okay and not be bums.'" "Please God," Jacob is imagined as praying, "Let the kids just be good boys . . . "
As the story unfolds, God does "join His name" to Jacob, because when Jacob wrestles with the angel next week, Jacob's name is changed to Israel. That last syllable, el, is God's name joined to Jacob's new name, Israel.
Our third-century midrash continues its fantasy. It imagines Jacob on his deathbed, gathering his sons to him to give them blessing (as he will at the end of Genesis a few weeks down the road). He calls each son individually, and then brings them all together for his final exhortation. He tells them, "Boys, `Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, There's still time to change the road you're on.'"
Having encouraged them to do teshuvah, he asks them, "Sons of mine, are you okay with God?? I mean REALLY okay with God?"
To which they reply, "Listen, Israel, our father-just as you are at One with God, so too, the Lord our God the Lord is One."
Or as we say it in Hebrew: Shema' Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonei Ehad.
So, from Jacob's dream in this week's Torah reading, we learn three things:
1. That he earned the right to have God's word spoken "to the children of Israel" by virtue of the fact that he was a neurotic Jewish parent who daily worried that his kids would turn out all right.
2. That his dream not only foreshadowed his fruitful offspring, but on his very deathbed, our ancestor Jacob would quote Led Zeppelin's famous "Stairway to Heaven" to his children ("Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, There's still time to change the road you're on.").
3. That every time we recite the Shema', we should not only hear a call to us as a people, "Hear O Israel," but should also hear the reassurance that our father Jacob heard in the final moments of his life: there will be continuity, you've done your job as a parent, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
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