Parashat Vayetze 5779

Cantor Gershon Silins – 16 November 2018

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, God makes a promise to Jacob in a dream. God says: “Look, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land, for I will not abandon you by not doing what I have spoken to you about.” (Gen 28:15) When Jacob wakes up, he makes a promise in return: “If God will be with me, and protect me on the path I take, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in wholeness, in that case, God will be my God. And this rock that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and from everything that you will give me I will certainly give a tenth to you.” (Gen 28:20-22) Is Jacob making deals with God? God’s offer is powerful and generous, and Jacob’s response weak and conditional. One of our midrashic sources, Bereishit Rabba, presents two possible understandings of Jacob’s seemingly crass bargaining. The first is that the chronology of the text is wrong; we should understand that Jacob made his vow before God made the promise: if you will take care of me, he says, then I will be loyal to you, and God replies, yes, I will take care of you. The second midrashic writer say that the order is perfectly good as we have it in the Torah: what Jacob is really saying is that “if I prove worthy of these promises, if I maintain standards of conduct and obedience to God, then, and only then, I will expect God to fulfill these promises to me.”

This second view shows Jacob in a better light; he wants to be worthy of God’s beneficence. If he is, then in return, God promises to take care of him. Of course, this view has difficult aspects as well. Because we know that God does not always treat even the most righteous very well. If God does not give us sustenance and safety, is it because we haven’t been worthy? This month, we mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. This brutal and murderous conflict was fought by adversaries who were by and large equally religious and, at least from their own point of view, equally deserving of victory. How many bargains with God were made during that war, and how many people made their vows and yet met with death? Were they not worthy?

In our day, too, we face this problem. Those murdered a short time ago in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue were not just fine human beings, but actively religious – they were among the more devoted members of their synagogue. And many of the mass murders in the United States have been directed at churches and those who worship in them. In 2015, those murdered a church in Charleston, South Carolina included nine churchgoers and the senior pastor, who was also a state senator. Worthiness and good deeds do not protect us from catastrophe.

As a people, we have also suffered. In the aftermath of the calamities that have befallen us, our response has often been to find a reason for it by looking to our own sins, our disobedience towards God. This gave a framework of meaning to our suffering and allowed us to maintain faith in God despite the terrible events.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, many felt that the covenant had been broken by God’s failure to protect the faithful. But the prevailing orthodox view was that if previous catastrophes didn’t shake our faith, why should this one? However, rather than respond to it as previous generations had done, by blaming catastrophe on our own sins, many traditional Jews (and of course not just traditional Jews) responded to the Shoah in one very straightforward way, by having a lot of children. This may have been their way of affirming the covenant, even though the relationship with God had been challenged.

Today, our theology moves us increasingly away from the kind of bargaining that Jacob did (whether you take the view that it was God’s faithfulness or his own worthiness that he was bargaining about) and towards something else – an understanding that there are other reasons than providential rewards to try to be worthy. Striving for worthiness in our day must become its own reward. What happens to us is often beyond our control, but how we respond to the challenges of life is something that we can control, and there is a strength, and even a kind of joy, in accepting what life throws at us without compromising our values. It is one of the challenges of modernity: as the sea of faith has receded, the icy mountains of personal responsibility are revealed.

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