Warning, the Midrash is once again going to tamper with stories you learned as a child. This time it’s Yaakov’s heroic defeat of the angel of Eisav.
The Midrash starts with 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 anyone else. 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.
שְׁלֹשָׁה מְקוֹמוֹת פִּנְקָסוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם נִפְתָּחַת. הַיּוֹצֵא לַדֶּרֶךְ יְחִידִי, וְהַיּוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵית הַמְּרוֹעָע, וְהַנּוֹדֵר וְאֵינוֹ מְשַׁלֵּם
“A person’s account book (of their deeds) is opened three times: when they journey alone upon a highway; when they resides in a dilapidated house; when they vows and fail to fulfill it“(Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach, 8:1).
Obviously traveling alone and entering a structure in danger of collapse are two situations where you are putting your life in danger. But why does that trigger opening your ledger – a divine audit of all your deeds? This kind of scrutiny is usually reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
God will always come to my 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:
לְעוֹלָם אַל יַעֲמוֹד אָדָם בְּמָקוֹם סַכָּנָה לוֹמַר שֶׁעוֹשִׂין לוֹ נֵס, שֶׁמָּא אֵין עוֹשִׂין לוֹ נֵס
“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 will fulfill your pledge whenever you get around to it, or not at all. More importantly, you are exhibiting an egregious lack of הכרת הטוב gratitude for the goodness that God has done for you.
Yaakov took nothing for granted
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.
“קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים” “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 took 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:
וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹקֹ֖ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֙נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ׃וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה ה’ לִ֖י לֵאלֹקֹ֖ים.וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֙מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹקֹ֖ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ׃
“Yaakov 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.” (Bereishis, 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.
The Midrash says that had Yaakov fulfilled his pledge, perhaps he wouldn’t have been 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 the abduction and rescue of Dina, 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.
The danger of missed messages
Do we think we can do better at absorbing God’s messages than Yaakov who stands for truth? As the prophet Micha said:
תִּתֵּ֤ן אֱמֶת֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב חֶ֖סֶד לְאַבְרָהָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ מִ֥ימֵי קֶֽדֶם׃
“Give truth to Jacob, loving kindness to Abraham, As You swore to our Forefathers In days gone by” (Micha 7:20).
Of course, it’s true that the most righteous are judged the most harshly, but what can we take away from this astounding Midrash?
Perhaps the lesson is this: Although we may not be making a formal pledge as 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 needing louder and louder (more painful) reminders that we have so much to be grateful for.