How timely for Thanksgiving weekend is this week's Torah reading of Vayetze. We narrate our ancestor Jacob's long-distance travel to spend time with family he doesn't know very well. Of course, he also is fleeing from family he knows only too well. It all seems very familiar; and it should. Jacob's dysfunctional and unruly family is, after all, our own.
Like so many of us bedded down uncomfortably in the spare room with a lumpy pillow, Jacob puts a rock beneath his head and dreams. When he awakes Jacob vows, "If God is with me and protects me on this journey I am taking, and if God gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return home safely to my father's house -- then the Lord will be my God" (Genesis 28:20-21).
Jacob's vow is far too conditional for the rabbis of old. "If...if...if...!" they cry in one of the earliest commentaries we have on the Torah (Sifre Deuteronomy #31). "And were God not to protect Jacob, then what? Would the Lord in some way not be God?" they ask. Surely our ancestor Jacob, he who gave us the name Israel, surely he would not put such conditions upon God, would he? It just seems too impudent.
After all, Scripture is always having God command, "Speak to the children of Israel." The Bible could have said, "Speak to the children of Abraham," or "speak to the children of Isaac." What was Jacob's special merit that God singled him out and named our people after him -- especially given his apparent impertinence after his dream? You would think such chutzpah would garner a rebuke from God, not a reward.
Waxing creative, the third-century rabbis suggest that Jacob's special merit was the fact that he was a neurotic Jewish parent. I'll quote them, lest you think I am making this stuff up.
Jacob merited having God speak to his children because he was neurotic all his life. He would say, "Oy! What if one of my kids is a bum -- just like what happened to my forbears! Abraham, after all, brought forth Ishmael; and Isaac brought forth Esau. I do not want to have a bum like my ancestors did!"
The rabbis cleverly explain that it was this obsessive parental concern that led Jacob to the famous vow following his restless night with the lumpy pillow. Why did Jacob take his vow? What did he mean when he said, "then the Lord will be my God."
He meant that through thick and thin he wanted God to be there for him. He wanted God to join him in battling his fears, his worries about the kids, his skirmishes with daily life. He needed God to be his ally so that his children would not turn out to be bums. Jacob wanted to be joined with God in raising his family, through all his worries about putting food on the table, fitting the children with clothes, travelling with them in safety. He wanted to join his name to God -- and that is precisely what happened to him.
By playing the neurotic Jewish parent, Jacob managed to raise his kids up right. And God, quite literally, was joined to him -- for Jacob's name was changed to Israel. Isra--El (Genesis 32:29). The second half of Jacob's new name is a name of God, "El." Jacob becomes the bearer of a godly name to witness his alliance with God.
Those wise and wily rabbis have one more twist in store as they imagine another family gathering, this at the end of Jacob's life (Genesis 49). We are told at the end of Genesis that Jacob gathers his children and blesses them each individually and then as a group. He wants to know if they have been faithful to God. Have they, like he, wrestled with their worries and taken God as their ally to vanquish their obsessive fears?
Loving children that they are, they assuage him and reassure him, saying, "Listen Israel, our father, just as you are joined in your heart to God, so we are at one with God." This is a very coy reassurance the rabbis have created, which echoes the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 6, "Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad." Now we can take notice of both the traditional, "Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One," and the reassurance that Jacob/Israel's kids have offered their anxious father on his deathbed.
Jacob's blessing of his children becomes his children's blessing in turn of their father. His worries become their worries. His God is their God. And all is right with the ancestral family. This Thanksgiving as we gather among family from far and near, as we laugh and fret, rejoice and perhaps even recriminate with one another, we can recall the blessings of family. And we should recall Jacob's words when he woke from his slumber on that rock-hard pillow, and again, at the end of his long journey, "God is in this place, and I didn't even realize it" (Genesis 28:16).
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