by Rabbi Steven Bayar
Last week, Jacob “stole” the Covenantal blessing from Esau. Esau’s reaction is to promise to kill Jacob as soon as their father Isaac has passed away. Jacob runs for his life. On his way out of the promised land he stops for the night at what seems an insignificant place. The Rabbinic Midrash points out that Jacob dared not be seen in any town or city for fear that Esau would find out his destination and track him down.
Jacob has nothing to his name. He left in such a hurry that he could not take anything. He beds down for the night, penniless, bereft of home and safety. He is running from a dangerous past into an uncertain future.
He dreams. His dream is of lofty heights. He dreams of a ladder reaching from the heavens to the earth. Messengers of God are ascending and descending the ladder. God speaks to him, promising that Jacob will be under Divine protection from now on.
What is Jacob’s response? Upon arising in the morning, he is surprised that “There was God in this place and I did not know!” But then, in a surprising statement – to the tradition as well as to us, he makes the following bargain with God.
Jacob then made a vow saying,
“If God remains with me,
if God 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,
the Lord shall be my God…
28:20 – 21
What is Jacob doing? How do you bargain with God? Is Jacob really saying that he will only worship God if he is provided with bread, clothing and protection? Is this his response to Divine revelation?
The commentators have many rationalizations of this episode, but I prefer the plain text as it stands. I like what Jacob has to say to God. It is profound, and challenging. In essence Jacob is reminding God of the famous dictum in Jewish tradition:
If there is no flour, there is no Torah.
You cannot study Torah, or appreciate the finer points of Jewish tradition on an empty stomach. Jacob is reminding God that without food, there can be no faith.
For all those in the Jewish community who support houses of learning and ignore the needy at their doorstep, as long as there is one hungry mouth out there – there can be no true Torah.
As Thanksgiving approaches it is important for all of us to realize the truth of this dictum – and act accordingly. We are truly blessed to have enough to eat – let’s make sure this dynamic spreads throughout the world.