Jacob is running away from his brother Esau and heading northeast from Beersheba to Horon. The sun has just set, and he takes some stones for a pillow lays down to sleep.
Then, Jacob has a dream. A long ladder rises from the ground up to the heavens. And the angels are ascending and descending. Then G-d appears and tells Jacob that the ground on which he is resting will be given to him and his children. The 84-year-old bachelor was told that his children will be numerous as the sand on the beach, and he will gain strength to move in all directions. Jacob must not fret. G-d will be with him wherever he goes.
Jacob awakes and realizes that G-d has spoken to him. He also understands that the ground he had been sleeping on is holy. Indeed, the stones he had taken for his pillow were from the altar that Abraham had used in the near-sacrifice of Issac.
And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If G-d will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my G-d; [Genesis. 28: 20-21]
Wait a minute. G-d just promised Jacob everything — family, nation, land and protection. What does this vow add? Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, suggests that Jacob was offering a deal.
“If He keeps these promises that he promised to be with me,” Rashi writes, “as He said to me, ‘And behold I am with you.'”
Rashi didn’t make this up. He is quoting the Midrash, composed some 1,000 years earlier. So, the difficulty is compounded: G-d just promised Jacob everything. Why is Jacob doubting the One Above?
This excerpt from our weekly Torah portion, Vayeitzei, is one of the few times that other medieval commentators ignore or disagree with Rashi, their elder statesman. These sages are firm in their assertion that Jacob would not dare to offer a deal to G-d. It’s a matter of logic: Jacob has studied Torah at the knees of the great ones. His grandfather Abraham trusted G-d under the most trying circumstances. Shem had been saved in Noah’s ark.
The answer is that Jacob was establishing a template for the future. He was teaching his children how to pray. In Genesis, there was only one previous example of prayer — that of Eliezer, sent on a mission by Abraham to bring home a wife for Issac. Eliezer turned to G-d and said, “Please cause to happen to me today and perform loving kindness with my master Abraham.”
Jacob’s prayer was not that of a slave to please his master. It was that of a man with a mission to build a nation. He knew that Eliezer’s request from G-d might suffice to fulfill a specific task. But it was not a commitment for eternity — and that’s what Jacob needed.
Jacob was holding G-d to a vow. The nation that you are entrusting to me will need food, clothing and peace. The divine protection must be absolute.
Notice what Jacob left out — money.
The ones who have built nations throughout history have been the monied class. America was founded by slaveowners. Rome was built on conquest and pillage. Saudi Arabia started as a tribe that raced through the desert, conquering, raping and killing. Britain and France did the same thing but a few centuries earlier.
The State of Israel was also controlled by the rich. The Zionist leadership was comprised of an elite that combined public activity with service to their colonial masters — whether Turkey or Britain. The first act of the new state was to woo West Germany and America to send money. The price for that was dismissed.
What is the price of accepting gifts? Jacob just had to look at his elders. Abraham rejected any payback for saving the king of Sodom. Issac dug his own wells rather than rely on the charity of the Philistines. Soon, Jacob would do the same with his father-in-law Laban.
Jacob knew that the price of money is you. When you take money from anybody — even your family — you give up your independence. A little money — a little independence. A lot of money — a lot of independence. Nearly $4 billion a year from Washington — all of your independence. And throw in your people as well.
The prayer of Jacob highlighted what he really wanted: G-d. His appeal was simple: G-d give me the physical things I need so I don’t have to rely on strangers. Then, I could serve You completely. This is exactly what we recite in our daily prayer called Modim. “Thus, revive and keep us, gather in the exiles to Your holy courts to keep Your edicts, to do Your will and to serve You whole-heartedly.”
Jacob also wanted G-d to promise something else. In his dream, Jacob heard G-d say, “for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” [Genesis. 20-15]
The Torah says Jacob awoke frightened. Does G-d plan to forsake Israel? That can’t be.
Jacob’s response was to make G-d promise never to leave us. G-d, not the nations, would always support His people — whether in Israel or the Exile. He knew that Esau would always be behind him, ready to pounce. In return, Jacob would promise never to be ungrateful for G-d’s protection and miracles. Jacob would return a portion of everything given by G-d. That arrangement would bind G-d and His people forever.
Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of G-d, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You. [Genesis. 28:22]