Midrash Tanchuma has a harsh warning for those who commit 3 particular acts. You might guess that these would be on the scale of major transgressions like adultery, idolatry and murder. Instead they are actions which cause no direct harm to any other person. Namely, traveling alone in an isolated area, going into a dilapidated building and, something that the Midrash accuses Yaakov of violating – making a pledge to God and not fulfilling it.
“A man’s account book (of his deeds) is opened three times: when he journeys alone upon a highway; when he resides in a dilapidated house; when he vows and fails to fulfill it.“
Obviously traveling alone and entering a structure in danger of collapse are 2 situations where you are putting your life in danger. But why does that trigger “opening your ledger?” A divine audit of all your deeds. The kind of scrutiny usually reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
God to the rescue
Perhaps knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way is being exceedingly presumptuous in how much goodwill you have secured with God. Are you so saintly that you can count on God to intervene on your behalf in the event of being assaulted on a dark road or the collapse of an abandoned building? Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s God coming to your rescue. No, it doesn’t work like that. As Rabbi Yannai plainly states in the Tractate Shabbat:
“One should never stand in a dangerous place assuming that a miracle will happen on his behalf because a miracle may not be performed on your behalf” (Talmud Shabbat 32a)
The third prohibition on the list, not fulfilling a pledge to God, seems to indicate the same folly of overconfidence. You presume to have such a close relationship with God that He surely won’t mind that you fulfill your pledge whenever you get around to it, or not at all. More importantly, you are exhibiting an egregious lack of gratitude for the goodness that God has done for you
Yaakov led a God-conscious life
It is hard to believe that these charges were leveled against Yaakov – the person who is perhaps best known in all of Torah for exhibiting the exact opposite of presumptuousness. His fear was that because of his sins he did not deserve God’s abundant kindness.
“Perhaps I am diminished from all the goodness that you (God) have bestowed upon me’ (Genesis 32:11)
Yet according to the Midrash, Yaakov was negligent for not having fulfilled his pledge as soon as he left the house of Lavan. After awakening from the dream of angels going up and down the ladder, Yaakov made an oath. He pledged that if God would protect him and provide his basic necessities, he would transform the stone that he had consecrated into a dwelling place for God. Furthermore, he would tithe from all his material blessings. According to Midrash Tanchuma, God went to extraordinary lengths to send Yaakov a series of messages about his overdue pledge. This included his wrestling match with the angel of Eisav, his confrontation with Eisav, the tragic kidnapping of Dina, even the death of Rachel. Yet, Yaakov did not get the message until God spelled it out for him.
What signal should Yaakov have seen?
Let’s examine the pledge that Yaakov made:
“Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be G-d’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Genesis 29:20-22)
Yaakov was seeking sustenance and protection. What he got from God in last week’s Parsha was exactly that. He gained great wealth from the miracle involving the proliferation of spotted sheep. God protected Yaakov and his livestock by appearing to Lavan and warning him not to harm Yaakov. Lavan freely admitted that he intended to harm Yaakov if not for God’s intervention.
Had Yaakov fulfilled his pledge, perhaps he need not have found himself alone wrestling an angel all night (reminiscent of going on a dangerous journey by yourself). Yet God protected Yaakov from the angel and Eisav – just what Yaakov prayed for at the outset of his journey. After Dina was rescued Yaakov was angry at Shimon and Levy because he feared a revenge attack. Yaakov and his family moved on without incident. Once again, God kept his side of the bargain and protected Yaakov and his family.
Do we think we can do better at absorbing God’s messages than Yaakov who stands for truth. As the prophet Micah said:
“Give truth to Jacob, loving kindness to Abraham, As You swore to our Forefathers In days gone by.” (Micah 7:20).
Perhaps the lesson is this: Although we may not be making a formal pledge like Yaakov did, we too are constantly praying for sustenance and protection. Our challenge is to be more vigilant and truthful in acknowledging that God is indeed providing for us.
Otherwise we too are at risk of missing messages.