Thoughts on Vayetze (5773/2012)

(Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 11/23/12)

Jewish midrashic tradition credits Jacob with being the originator of the evening prayer service. That interpretation is based on a verse from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, "Vayetze". In Genesis 28:11, the Torah states "Vayifga bamakom vayalen sham ki va ha-shemesh", which the Jewish Publication Society translation renders as "He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set."

However, the word "vayifga"/"He came upon" also can be accurately translated as "he prayed" or "he entreated", based on the use of that verb elsewhere in the Tanakh. Further, the Hebrew word "hamakom"/ "the Place", in later Rabbinic usage, is a name for God, often translated as "the Omnipresent." As for example in the traditional greeting to mourners: "Hamakom yinachem etchem b’tokh she’ar aveyley tziyon virushalayim"/ "May God comfort you along with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

So, these opening words, "vayfiga bamakom" have the midrashic meaning of "He prayed to God" in addition to the plain meaning of "He came upon a certain place."

The word "vayifga" has an additional sense to it. This verb, which we can translate as "he came upon" or "he prayed" has a sense in Hebrew of a dynamic, even violent encounter. Israeli bible scholar Aviva Zornberg translates "vayifga bamakom" as "He collided with a certain place" and she goes on to explain that "the word vayifga suggests a dynamic encounter with an object that is traveling toward oneself." (Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Doubleday, 1995, p. 187).

There are as many approaches to prayer as there are people. Based on the images we find in Torah and midrash, Abraham might be seen as the sort of person who relates to God as an abstract principle. Jewish tradition sees him as the inventor of the morning prayer, Shacharit.  

Isaac might be seen as the example of the person who connects to God by communing with nature, by feeling a deep connection with the miracles of the created world. Jewish tradition credits him with being the initiator of the late afternoon prayer, minchah, based on words of Genesis 24:63 --  "Vayetze Yitzchak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev"/ "Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening"

As for Jacob, who, as it were, collides with God, at the start of a scary journey, fleeing from his childhood home for fear of his life   ---  He represents a different, no less valid, kind of prayer. His is the prayer of the individual who struggles with difficult circumstances in life, who struggles with his own conscience, who struggles with God. Indeed, the next time Jacob will encounter God in a dream will be twenty years later, when he will wrestle with an Angel and be given the new name “ Yisrael”/” Israel” meaning, “he who wrestles with God.”  -- That’s in next week’s Torah portion, “Vayishlach.”

Jacob’s earlier dream in this week’s parasha is a vision of security and comfort.  He dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder that goes to Heaven, with God promising to Jacob that he will inherit the land, beget numerous flourishing descendants, and be a blessing to the entire world – and that God will accompany and protect him throughout his journeys.  When Jacob wakes up from his dream, he is awestruck at what he has experienced, exclaiming:  אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי / Achen! Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi? ---   lo yadati!/  “WOW! Adonai was present in this place -- And I? – I did not know!” (Gen. 28:16)

But right after that, Jacob makes a conditional vow, in which he comes across as mistrustful and materialistic.   IF God will remain with him, and IF God protects him on his journey, and IF God gives him bread and clothing, and IF God allows him to return safely to his father’s house ---  only THEN will Jacob acknowledge Adonai as his God.  It might appear that what he really means is --- “God, you want to have a relationship with me?  Give me what I want first.”  And, indeed, we have already encountered Jacob as a calculating, manipulative sort of person.  Remember, this is the same youth who pressured his starving brother to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew.  And this is the same young man who resorted to subterfuge to trick his father into bestowing upon him the blessing intended for that brother.

Where’s the trust?  Where’s the gratitude?

Various Talmudic and Medieval era Jewish commentaries try to get around this ethical concern by treating the phrase “vehayah Adonai li Elohim” (“Adonai will be God for me”) (end of verse 21) as one more “IF” clause in Jacob’s prayer   --- and not as part of Jacob’s vow as to what he’ll do if his prayer is granted. (The Hebrew prefix “ve--” can be translated in a variety of ways depending on the context – It’s much broader in scope than the English word “and.”).  And so according to this alternative translation approach, Jacob’s vow can be understood to read:   "…If God remains with me, and protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house, and if Adonai shall be God to me ---  Then this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God's abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You."  (Gen. 28: 20-22, as per  Rashi and Gur Aryeh commentaries).   In other words, Jacob is not conditioning his relationship with God on his material rewards.  Rather, Jacob is saying that certain types of gifts require the material ability to be able to offer them.  (Nachmanides, on the other hand – says Jacob is indeed bargaining for material benefit before he will acknowledge Adonai as his God.)

In our own lives, we face similar challenges.  It can be difficult, especially in the all-encompassing commercialism of “Black Friday” and the Christmas and Chanukah shopping season --- to focus on gratitude for what we have rather than on yearning to possess more and more material stuff.  And it can be challenging to remember that the relationships we have with our loved ones are what counts – and that they shouldn’t depend on the extent of our ability to participate in holiday gift giving. 

“Black Friday” in most parts of the United States has already bled backwards into “Black Thursday Evening”  -- but I hope you were able to celebrate Thanksgiving in the company of friends and loved ones without rushing out to the mall  -- and I hope we can all resist (or at least limit) the extent to which we might find ourselves diving full speed ahead into the commercial maelstrom on Shabbat during this season (and indeed throughout the year). There’s still plenty of time for that on Saturday night (Shabbat ends early this time of year) or the other six days of the week.

Pirke Avot teaches:  “Azehu ashir, hamesame’ach bchelko?”/ “Who is rich – The one who is happy with his or her lot.”  While it’s important that the economy hums along healthily, we always know in our hearts that it’s our relationships, not our possessions, that center us and open us up to God’s presence in our lives.    Along with our classic commentators, we might debate where Jacob is in Genesis 28 on that materialism versus gratitude spectrum.  As for us, may the love we give and receive to and from God and to and from one another give us Shalom/Peace/Wholeness/Fulfillment now and always – with or without the Black Friday sales.

Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2012


Posted on November 29, 2012 .