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Following a relatively daring escapade to fool his father and receive the blessing of Avraham and Yitzchak, Yaakov sets out on a journey to find a wife and avoid his brother’s wrath. Remarkably, his journey begins with G-d visiting him in a dream. In this dream, Hashem affirms that Yaakov is to receive the blessing of Avraham and Yitzchak: Yaakov will inherit the land that he lies upon, his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, and all families of the world will be blessed through his own.

In fact, Hashem goes beyond this and even promises Yaakov personal protection:


(15) And, behold, I am with you and I will watch over you everywhere that you go, and I will return you to this land because I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken of to you

Yaakov’s response upon awakening is troubling and confusing:

Yaakov took a vow, saying, “If G-d will be with me and watch over me on this path that I go, and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then Hashem will be for me a G-d and this stone that I set as a monument will be a house of G-d, and all that you give me, I will surely tithe to you.”

What exactly is being implied here? Does Yaakov not believe Hashem’s words, that He will “watch over” him? Does he disbelieve G-d’s assurance to “return” him? Last, most troublingly, is Yaakov’s promise that “if” (im) all of this takes place, then “Hashem will be for me a G-d.” “Michlal hahen yishama halav, chas veshalom,” says Rav Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg: from what Yaakov promises will occur if G-d takes care of him, you may infer what will happen if G-d does not, G-d forbid! What is the meaning of Yaakov’s upsetting promise?

This problem bedevils the commentators, and they suggest many answers.

Radak gives an answer that may be familiar to those who attended day school: Yaakov trusts in G-d’s promises but he is concerned that he will sin and not be worthy of receiving them. Thus, the “if” in question refers to his own behavior: if he, Yaakov, is worthy of receiving these blessings, then all of the things G-d promises him will come to pass.

Ramban and others take the approach that we are misreading Yaakov’s vow. We most often translate the word “im” to mean “if.” However, it often means “when.” Thus, Yaakov is promising that “when” G-d’s promises come true, he will give tithes to G-d, etc.

Rashi’s approach is perhaps the most fascinating. He writes:

“And Hashem will be a G-d for me.” – That His name will rest on me from beginning to end. That there will not be found chaff among (Yaakov’s) children. 

Rashi suggests here that while Yaakov has faith that G-d will bring him back in one piece and that his children will inherit the land promised to his fathers, he does not know whether all of his children will be worthy of this promise. After all, Avraham and Yitzchak both had children who were not chosen to continue the covenant. So, if all of Yaakov’s children remain loyal to G-d – if His name can be found to apply to all of Yaakov’s children – then Yaakov will make a monument to G-d and offer tithes.

Read in this manner, Yaakov’s vow is a stark reminder of how we experience our trials and travails. Even if you can promise to every Israeli mother that her children will return home safely, she will ask you what kind of life they will have. We cannot stop ourselves from thinking and wondering: will the hostages come home safely? Safe in mind, body, and soul? Will they live well and thrive? Will they succeed in their material and spiritual lives, make contributions, and carry forward our values as a people? Yaakov is assured significant material success; but will all his children be worthy of it? Can he accept a reality where even one of his children is rejected by G-d?

We cannot escape the need not only for survival but for spiritual and cultural success. Honesty dictates, then, that we must keep two foci in mind at all times:

First, we must do everything in our power to support our people’s quest for the return of our kidnapped and missing and we must strengthen Israel’s battle for safety for its land and citizens. We must pay attention to the basic needs of Jews in Israel and around the world- they require safety, shelter, food, jobs, and so on. We must be there for them if we are lucky enough ourselves to have food and clothing and the things that we need.

Next, we must not forget that even in times of great need, culture and spirituality must be recognized and cultivated. Survival is not enough and can never be enough. We must therefore also contribute to the spiritual successes of Jews around the world. Chief among those in this category are the people we are most directly responsible for: our own children, friends, and fellow community members.

We often forget just how important spirituality is to a balanced life. We remember that we need money, job security, and a place to live. Usually we remember that we need friends, a social life, and a sense of community, though even these things are sometimes forgotten. But it is hardest to remember that we need to thrive spiritually, to maximize our potential as human beings, to better ourselves and our communities morally. But what happens to people who are spiritually lost?

What happens to the people who wake up one day to find that their children do not have a basic sense of the difference between good and evil? What should a father say to his son who justifies the beheading of babies or a mother to her daughter who proclaims – as a recent Tik Tok trend has gone – that Bin Laden was right to engineer the attack on the U.S. on 9/11? What should these parents do when they realize just how badly awry their plans for their children have gone? Should they say that nothing matters so long as these children have good jobs?

There are parents all over this country waking up to a particular tragedy – the tragedy of a wasted soul, the tragedy of a morally pathetic life, the tragedy of an ignorant mind and a closed heart. We cannot allow ourselves to wake up to similar realities. We require much more than for our children to thrive materially.

When we read of Yaakov’s promise to G-d we must recall that he asked not only for survival but for G-d’s name to rest upon each of his children. We should take courses of action that make this a probable reality for ourselves and our families. We should draw G-d into our homes and hearts and pursue a path of closeness with Him. If we do so then after this difficult period is past, we will not only have come through physically but we will be able to celebrate the full gamut of success: we will first survive and then G-d’s name will rest upon us.


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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.