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After G-d's first appearance to Jacob on his journey towards Laban's household…
Then Jacob took a vow, saying, "If G-d will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father's house and G-d [Hashem] will be a G-d [Elokim] to me - then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of G-d" (28:20-22).
Jacob's vow is his response to G-d the first time He ever spoke to him. G-d told him that He would give him and his numerous children the Land. He would be 'with him, take care of him wherever he goes, bring him back to this Land, and He would not forsake him' (28:14-15). Jacob's requests within his vow, however, were modest. He was not making conditions with G-d. He wanted only the bare essentials. Just bread to eat, clothes, to wear and a safe passage with His guidance. As the Radak explains, the righteous ask only for what they need, and no more.
Sforno understands the frame of Jacob's request slightly differently, and in doing so moves it to a higher level. Jacob wanted G-d, described as Hashem, to be for him in the role of Elokim. He distinguishes between Hashem and Elokim. Hashem denotes G-d who shows understanding and compassion towards our shortcomings - middat harachamim. But Elokim emphasizes G-d using the far more exacting standards of strict justice - middat hadin, the yardstick being the very highest standard of behavior one is capable of at all times. Jacob was implying his yearning to live in harmony with the Creator to such a degree that he would find favor even if judged by middat hadin. He did not want to descend to the level that he would need to depend on middat harachamim.
Sforno connects Jacob's apprehension in leaving his familiar surroundings for the unknown to a principle emphasized by the Rabbis: "Three things deprive a man of his sensibilities and a knowledge of his Creator… idolaters, an evil spirit, and oppressive poverty" (Eruvin 41b). And thus, to be worthy of qualifying favorably under middat hadin, he prayed that G-d "would guard him on this way that I am going" from the negative company of idolaters, "give me bread to eat and clothes to wear" preventing oppressive poverty, and "return in peace" unharmed by illness that causes a person to transgress, rooted in the "evil spirit". Then, G-d would be to him as he aspired - Elokim - and he would be united positively with G-d in the higher middat hadin realm rather than the lower middat harachamim where he would be dependent on G-d's mercy.
Indeed, on a more modest level, there are people whose activities take them to foreign and often exotic countries far out of sight of their familiar communities. And against all odds, they still maintain the high Torah standards they live by at home. They may indeed be seen as disciples of Ya'akov Avinu.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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