We have already seen Avraham Avinu’s audacity in his debate with Hashem over the Sedom’s destruction . In Parashat VaYeitzei, however, Yaakov appears to take an even bolder stance in his relationship with God .
Yaakov dreams about a ladder on which angels are ascending and descending . God is standing beside him and promises him that He will give him this land, the land of Canaan, He will make him into a great nation, and He will protect him and always be with him . Just when he wakes up the next morning and absorbs the significance of this encounter he just had, Yaakov turns to God and makes a Neder . He vows that if God makes good on His promises, then he – Yaakov – will commit himself to God . How can Yaakov make deals with God? How can he make his belief in God and his commitment to God contingent upon how well God delivers on His end of the deal?
This question is as old as the Torah itself . In fact, the Rabbis were also struck by this question, although they weren’t convinced that this is the plain meaning of the text . The Pesukim state (BeReishit 28:20-21): “VaYidar Yaakov Neder Leimor Im Yihyeh Elokim Imadi UShmarani…VeNatan Li…VeShavti VeShalom,” “Ya’akov made a vow, saying, if God will be with me and He protects me… and He gives me everything I need… and I return whole,” “VeHayah Hashem Li LeiLokim,” “Hashem will be a God to me .”
Most translators see this last statement as the consequence of the conditions of the vow; Yaakov is saying “if God does these things, then God will be my God and I will identify with Him .” The Rabbis, however, read the pasuk differently . “Mah Talmud Lomar VeHayah Hashem Li LeiLokim? SheYichal Shemo Alai SheLo Teitzei Mimeni P’solet MiTechilah Ad Sof,” “Why does the Torah say ‘Hashem will be a God to me’? So that God’s name will be present with me [Yaakov] and nothing bad will be said about me from begin- ing to end” (Sifrei Devarim 31) . Yaakov vows that if God fulfills this promise and provides him with all of those things he lists, then the natural result will be that the name of God will be present with him. Once he has the presence of the name of God, then he can be a faithful servant . Yaakov is not saying, “Only then will I believe in God .” Rather, he is saying that if God grants him these things, he will then have the presence of God with him . In essence, Yaakov’s vow is really a plea or a prayer for that close relationship with God that allows a person to elevate him- or herself. It’s the basic request for Divine assistance that one makes when he or she seeks to be a better Jew. He is not asking that any specific need be fulfilled; he’s asking for that which will enable him to be more devout, more faithful . He’s asking for the ability to serve God and that ability comes from being in the presence of God .
This is a startling expression of desire by Yaakov . He is not seeking any reward for their commitment, nor does he wish to test God to see how He will treat them . Yaakov is expressing his ultimate desire of commitment to God, and therefore he asks that he be able to do so, that he be provided with the opportunities to do so .
Why does he ask for these things? Why does he ask for these opportunities? Because he understands one of the fundamental lessons of creation: God placed man in the world “LeOvdah ULeShamrah,” “To serve the world and to protect it” (BeReishit 2:15) – we are partners with God in the creative process that advances this world and in implementing God’s plan for the world .
Seeing us as partners, God consequently says to Himself before destroying Sedom (BeReishit 18:17), “HaMechaseh Ani MeAvraham Asher Ani Oseh,” “Will I hide what I am doing from Avraham?” If I expect Avraham to cultivate justice and mercy in the world, how can I hide from my partner what I am about to do? “Ki Yeda’tiv, LeMa’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav VeEt Beito Acharav VeShamru Derech Hashem La’asot Tzedakah UMishpat,” “For I have known him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice” (18:19) .
When Yaakov turns to God and makes a plea not for the things he wants, but for the things he needs to become closer to God, he is acting as a partner seeking opportunities to fulfill his end of the commitment to implement the divine plan of sanctifying the world with God’s presence .
Once we are done with our requests from God and have asked Him to provide the things that we need to live, we must remember that we are partners with Him in improving the world and bringing the light of the Torah into its darkest places . Therefore, we must remember to also ask God for the opportunities to fulfill that mission . Ask not only for opportunities to receive, but ask for opportunities to contribute as well .