Our role as Gods partners makes for a smooth landing


Genesis 28:10-32:3

Hosea 12:13-14:10

This week’s parshah, following closely from last week, tells the story of the coming of age of Jacob. This young man, of whom we know little — other than in relation to his brother and his mother — comes into his own in this reading. (He might not even be that young; calculations have his son Joseph being born when he is in his 90s!)

Fleeing from home, doubly blessed by his father and mother, he is on his way to find a wife pleasing to them, though in fear of his brother’s wrath from having stolen their blessings. He is leaving with little, only to return at the end of the chapter with great wealth in all realms, except land.

At dark, the setting sun forces him to stop, and he is greeted by the most impressive vision in the Torah, save creation: “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12).

In one sentence, we have this evocative vision, which I suggest is emblematic of the relationship that is about to be cemented. God stands over Jacob, and repeats the rewards of the covenants with Abraham: land, descendants and blessings.

Unlike his grandfather, Jacob does not quite take this at face value — perhaps because of his own experiences in receiving, or shall I say conniving, his father’s own blessings.

Instead, upon awakening, he makes a rather audacious deal 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.’ “

Unlike Abraham, he is asking for proof, and when it is delivered, he vows to engage in the relationship. Interestingly, as he awakens, he realizes the holiness of the place, and names it Beth El, but as he makes his vow, he reduces that residence to the pillar that he will set up.

God is true to God’s word, through all the trickery and pain involved in the relationship with Laban and his daughters, and Jacob journeys back to his father’s house laden with goods, animals and children. But he does not go to the place of his dreams, and his pillar is one of division, not of thanks.

He keeps Laban away from the land, from his descendents, from the flocks by this new pillar. It is only then that he offers the sacrifice of his vows to God. That night is not accompanied by a dream, as in the beginning. No longer do the angels float up and down, nor do we even hear about the possible delight God has in Jacob’s return to home and to God.

Rather the angels come in the morning, and he realizes the now temporary nature of the Divine presence in that spot: He calls it God’s camp. It is as if Jacob has, in maturing, realized that bargains are tricky things, and that the blessings he has received can be fleeting.

Instead of the confident young man, he is returning with hesitation, fear and a good dose of reality under his belt. God’s promises were realized, but only with his help, and the nature of this relationship is still unknown to him, though it will become clearer in the darkness of the night in our next parshah.

Now, no longer is he in direct connection with God as at first, symbolized by the angels going up and down. Now the angels go ahead, or come to him, and will even seek to destroy him as he moves tentatively into the realm of patriarch and elder.

Now it is his house that matters, that blessing he received from God. His feelings are more raw, his heart more open — and in his greater tenderness, he takes upon himself a more thoughtful, loving approach to the world.

We join him in welcoming the angels with trepidation, knowing now that the Presence is really too vast and complex for us, but that our role as God’s partners is well established.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.