This week’s Torah portion Vayetzei begins with Yaakov (Jacob) on the run from his brother Esav, alone and heading for Charan. He stops at the future site at what will eventually become the Temple Mount, and has his famous dream, of “a ladder (that) stood on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12). God then appears to him and promises to give him and his descendants the Land of Israel, and promises to keep Yaakov safe until he will eventually return to Canaaan.
Yaakov wakes up from his dream, recognizes the significance of what just transpired, and takes a vow:
“If God 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 God; then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22).
Reading the parsha in light of events these past few days and weeks makes you stop and wonder about Yaakov’s if-then promise to God. Think of the sequence of events – God appears to him in a dream, in convincing fashion, Yaakov wakes up and then makes a highly conditional promise to Hashem:
If you guard me and protect me on my way…
If you clothe me and feed me…
If you give me safe passage back home…
Then, and only then will I follow You, Hashem.
Hashem, look at your children today, in the year 2015, 5776. Look at how special they are and how much they believe in You and love You. And without conditions! Hashem, you stopped appearing in their dreams a long time ago, you stopped revealing Yourself to them generations ago. For thousands of years, we have had You in our dreams, we have been praying for You to reveal Yourself to us. And in spite of it all, in spite of the hardships and the indignities and the horrors that spanned centuries, we somehow persevered, and rebuilt ourselves from the ashes and reclaimed our Land. We have always kept our promise to You and our commitment to You when everything about the way this world works screams the exact opposite of Your promises.
Take today for example, as summarized by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary Magazine. “With each passing day, the toll of horrifying violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis grows. Today there were two separate attacks. One took place in the Gush Etzion bloc of the West Bank. There (in an area that was settled by Jews before 1948) a Palestinian opened fire with a submachine gun on a group of people at a road junction killing an American Jewish teenage tourist, an Israeli man, and a Palestinian passerby as well as wounding several others. Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian killed two Jews and wounded at least two others with a knife at the entrance to a synagogue. The total of five fatalities is the highest since the current surge of terror began two months ago.” And that was just today, another (ho-hum) tragic, awful day in Israel.
If this was just about an if-then relationship, then I think we would have packed it in a long time ago. But we moved on from that type of conditional promise, from that type of reality a long time ago. We endure. We thrive. We pick ourselves up, and we move forward.
In school, while we watch the world spasm with violence and barbarity, and quietly grieve with our brothers and sisters in Israel, we do what we have do. Where appropriate we do our best to discuss the current events with the students, while at the same time holding RAC Week events that bring light and godliness into the world, like handing out food to the homeless or baking challah for frail seniors. We try and answer what are often unanswerable questions, (“Mar Abba, why do they hate us so much?” or “Why are they trying to kill us?”) and in the next moment, we share something beautiful and profound about yiddishkeit, or learn about something amazing in Judaism, and help students prepare for a Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Through our actions, our words and our deeds, what we are in effect saying is:
We don’t need an if-then promise to You to live as Jews. Regardless of how much You may have hidden Yourself from this world, and allowed so much of this world to become such a scary and uncertain place, we, the children and descendants of Yaakov, will follow You, Hashem. We’re Yours.
Indeed, it is the only way we know how to be.