Parshat Vayetsei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
In this week’s portion, parashat Vayetsei, it seems that everyone is trying to pull a fast one on someone else. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel and then forces him to serve for another seven years to marry his intended bride. Jacob breeds the sturdiest animals of the flock for himself and the weaker ones for Laban. Leah and Rachel compete for Jacob’s affections (and for Reuben’s mandrakes). Rachel steals her father’s idols and then pretends to be “at that time of the month” to hide her offense.
But the first deal in the reading occurs even before Jacob arrives in Laban’s home. After awakening from his famous dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, Jacob recognizes God’s awesome presence in that place and vows that if God protects him on his journey and returns him safely home, then the Eternal One will be his God. The problem here is that at the end of his dream, God promises Jacob, “I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
We might understand Jacob’s apparent lack of faith in God as a function of his youth and inexperience. When confronted with God’s presence, Jacob is unsettled and uncertain what to make of the experience. Hence, his conditional vow even after God’s promise. However, if we look at God’s promise and Jacob’s vow, we see a slight but significant difference. God has promised to return Jacob to his homeland; Jacob’s vow is conditioned on God returning him to his father’s house. As we know from looking ahead in the story, Jacob will return to the land more easily than to his home. In order to achieve the latter destination, he must survive the encounter with the angel at the Jabbok and reconcile with Esau, the brother he is fleeing.
Rather than seeing Jacob’s conditional vow as a lack of faith, I see it as an expression of hope for his future. Even without the hindsight we possess, Jacob knows that he must reconcile with Esau in order to return home again. If God enables this to occur, then Jacob knows he will have a life of blessing in covenant with the Eternal One of Israel. Rather than a journey of youthful impulse, Jacob recognizes the need for teshuvah to repair his fractured familial relationships. His travels will give everyone a chance to cool down and to grow so that he can complete the process of reconciliation and enjoy the wholeness of family again.
This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.