Jacob's Covenant with God

Jacob's covenant with God teaches us that our relationships with God must not be conditional, but rather should be built on trust.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.

In this week's parashah, Jacob begins his long journey, both physically and spiritually, from his home and family. Shortly after he leaves home, God appears to Jacob in a dream, presenting the image of the ladder from heaven to Earth. God speaks to Jacob and promises him protection, offspring, and the land on which he lay.

Jacob then travels on to Haran, where he meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, the daughter of his mother's brother Laban. Jacob arranges with Laban to work seven years to marry Rachel. However Laban, who has something of a shady reputation, substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel on her wedding night. Jacob confronts Laban, but is told, ironically, that the older has precedent over the younger. Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel as well.

Years pass and the sisters, as well as their servants who are given to Jacob as concubines, bear Jacob twelve sons and a daughter. These sons will become the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of the portion, Jacob and his family depart from Haran and from Laban, and begin their journey back to Canaan.

In Focus

Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God remains with me, if He 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 Eternal shall be my God." (Genesis 28:20-22)

Pshat

This passage seems to be conditional. Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau and embarking out on his own for the first time, is a solitary man in the wilderness. Bedding down for the first night of this new chapter in his life, Jacob has a bizarre dream. God speaks to him from the dream and assures Jacob that he is not alone; God will be with him, will take care of him, will return him to his home, and will bless him and his descendants.

Jacob, awaking from his dream-filled sleep, perceives that something important has happened, but he does not seem entirely sure. And so Jacob responds cautiously. IF, in fact, God does do everything that was promised in the dream, THEN Jacob will be faithful to God.

Drash

Out on his own for the first time, embarking on a journey which, like his grandfather Abraham's journey before him, is both spiritual as well as physical, Jacob must establish his own relationship with God. At this point, the Brit--the covenant established at first with Abraham--is individual, and must be reaffirmed by each generation.

A covenant, like any contract, has two sides, and both parties must meet their obligations to the contract. So when Jacob, alone in the desert, has his first theophany, his first personal encounter with God, it serves to reestablish the covenant with this new generation.

God offers the standard terms: to care for Jacob, to grant him many descendants, and give him the promised land as a home. Jacob agrees to those terms, responding first by restating, in his own words, God's part of the deal, and then agreeing to accept God's sovereignty. Viewed this way, Jacob's response is only conditional in the way any contract or agreement is conditional. Many classic commentators read the passage in this way, really accepting the simple reading of the text.

But not all of our tradition is comfortable with Jacob putting conditions on God. After all, God has already vowed to do off these things for Jacob. So by stating 'im--"IF you do these things for me, THEN...," could Jacob possibly be doubting God?

The midrash, looking at the words very closely, prefers to read 'im as a form of promise - "if God does all of these things for me, then I will be protected from temptation and sin, and will have no problem being faithful to God." (Paraphrase from Bereshit Rabbah 70:4).

Jacob's vow is an exclamation of joy over God's protection. He does not doubt that God will keep the covenant; he doubts whether he himself will be able to uphold his commitment. With God's support, it should not be difficult.

Ramban (Moses Ben Nahmanides) reads it a little differently as well. He translates 'im not as "if" but as "when". When all these conditions are met, there can be no doubt that the Eternal is God. And therefore the passage is not conditional, but rather a vow that, upon his return to his home, the fulfillment of God's promise, then Jacob will set up a monument for the worship of God.

More than anything, our patriarchs and matriarchs stand as examples of how we can establish an individual relationship with God. For each of them, their relationship with God was formally established and affirmed at just the right point in their lives, when they were ready. For each, their relationship was unique, and for each, their relationship evolved as they grew and changed.

But, like any healthy positive relationship, a relationship with God must be built on trust. It can't be conditional. Lack of faith in the other always results in dire consequences. With God, it is we who are the weak ones. It is we who are getting the better end of the deal. If God is willing to enter into a covenantal relationship with us, and trust us, despite all of our shortcomings, how much more so should we trust God?

Dvar Aher

"...and the (seven years) seemed to him only a few days, because of the love he had for her." (Genesis 29:20)

Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatov wrote:

Should not the reverse be true, i.e. that a day should seem to Jacob like years because of his love for Rachel?

The wording of this passage is meant to convey to us the profound spiritual nature of the love that bound Jacob and Rachel to one another. In a love based on physical desire, the lovers want the time of separation to pass quickly so that each day they are apart seems to them like a year.

But in a spiritual love, devoid of self-seeking desire, such as that of Jacob and Rachel, the lovers do not care whether the object of their affection is near or far away. The spiritual love between Jacob and Rachel had already found fulfillment, and therefore, seven years seemed to Jacob only a few days.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.