Conditional Oaths by Nachum Fisch


As Ya'akov flees from Eisav, he is visited in a dream by Hashem, who promises to keep Ya'akov safe as he continues his journey to Padan Aram until his return to Eretz Kena’an. While most focus on the dream itself, several commentators look at what immediately follows. Upon awakening from the dream, Ya'akov makes a Neder to Hashem and states that as long as Hashem will protect and support him, Ya'akov will give what appears to be Ma'aseir (a tenth of his wealth), build a temple to Hashem on that spot, and acknowledge Hashem as his God. This presents a problem: How can Ya'akov, one of our three forefathers, possibly be so intensely fixated on the receipt of material benefits? Even more troubling is that it seems that if Hashem doesn’t make good on His word, Ya’akov won’t acknowledge Him as his God! Why would Ya'akov require tangible proof, when his grandfather Avraham demanded nothing and still withstood ten trials and tribulations? 

The Sifri explains that the language doesn’t mean that Ya’akov will recognize Hashem as the one true God only on condition that He grants him protection; rather, Ya'akov is saying that if he becomes successful, he will ensure that Hashem’s name will always be attached to his own. Through this interpretation, we can see that Ya'akov has no problems with his faith; rather, he wants Hashem to give him a way to make His name greater throughout the nations. This sentiment makes even more sense when one realizes that at this point in Sefer BeReishit, it has been 63 years since the meeting of Eliezer and Rivkah, the last time anyone has preached about Hashem in Padan Aram.

This still doesn’t resolve the issue of whether Ya’akov may make this vow. How can a person make a financial deal with Hashem? In reality, this is not a question at all. The Pasuk presents an ultimatum. The condition is stated as, "VeShavti VeShalom El Beit Avi," "So that I will return in peace to my father’s house" (BeReishit 28:21). Upon contemplation, all Ya’akov is truly asking for is to return to his father’s house. If Ya'akov doesn’t return to his father’s house, how can he make the site into a temple for Hashem? Once we see that this is purely logical, we can find solace that Ya’akov is not trying to use religion for his material gain. Not only this, but it sets the precedent for future generations to be brave and give new meaning to prayer. As we see in Sefer Shmuel with Chanah's plea for a son, she too creates a revolutionary cornerstone of our Tefilot.

Even with all of this, one question remains. Why is Ya'akov making this Neder if Hashem has just promised to protect him and bring him back safely? If he was just promised safety, why is he now making an oath with safety as a term? Nechama Leibowitz explains based on BeReishit Rabbah that Ya'akov's promise has another dimension to it. He isn’t just saying "If I return;" he is saying, "If I return and am worthy of Hashem's protection..." Yaakov is worried and doubts that he will be able to withstand the temptation in Lavan's house, and as a result is asking Hashem to protect him. In this way, we see that Yaakov does not doubt Hashem at all; he doubts only himself.

Ya’akov and Beit El by David Berger

What’s in a Naming? by Rabbi Ezra Wiener