Vayetzei - Navigating the Road Ahead

In the opening scenes of the parshah, following the vision of angels going up and down the ladder, Yaacov suddenly saw G-d. G-d appears to Yaacov in splendor and glory, blessing him and his offspring, and makes the following promise.

And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.
Breisheit 28 13-15
So with blessings and promises, and a direct vision from G-d, Yaacov would seem to be 'set.' We would have thought that Yaacov was bursting with enthusiasm and ready to embark on the journey he had started.

Yet, just a few pasukim later, upon waking, he displays a far different reaction. He was frightened and says:

וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם יִהְיֶה אֱ־לֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ
And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, "If G-d will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;
And if I return in peace to my father's house, and the Lord will be my G-d;
Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of G-d, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.
Breisheit 28 20-22
This seems like an odd reaction, considering the complete divine protection that he was offered just a few verses earlier.  Shouldn’t Yaacov's reaction have been more confident?

  1. Why is Yaacov asking “if” G-d will be with him, didn’t  G-d Himself just promised him  directly that He would be with him?
  2. Why does Yaacov vow by the name of G-d as KeloKim (the name of Judgement), while G-d Himself presented himself by the name YudKayVavKay (the name of mercy) – especially when Yaacov’s vow is about having mercy and doing him chesed?
  3. Why does Yaacov seem to present conditions for a deal to G-d, stating “terms up front” that need to be fulfilled in order for him to dedicate himself to G-d? Shouldn’t faith prevail, especially having received  divine promises?
  4. Why is Yaacov’s first concern about materialistic protection? Like bread and clothes?
  5. Why does Yaacov stipulate his conditions that for fulfillment of terms, he will “tithe” ( עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ) – we say the Avot already kept mitzvoth, now he wants make a mitzvah conditional?

The commentators address these issues.

Question #1
Why is Yaacov asking “if” G-d will be with him

Says The Kli Yakar:

Heaven forbid that one should say that Yaacov was in doubt about the direct promises from G-d. Since as we saw, G-d already said 'I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go.'
Rather The Kli Yakar says, Yaacov wasn’t asking for physical protection, since he was already promised that. 

Really Yaacov was requesting protection for his soul against the possibility of coming to sin.
We can see this directly in the words of G-d's promise:

וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּך וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
Breisheit 28:15
G-d had promised to him to ‘bring you back to this soil' - where the return to the land of Israel was under G-d's divine supervision. While Yaacov's response was 'and if I return in peace to my father's house' .
  • G-d promised to return Yaacov only 'to this soil'
  • Yaacov asked for protection to return all the way 'to my father's house.'

We can conclude that they were talking about two different journeys.

Question #2
Why does Yaacov vow by the name of G-d as KeloKim

The Gemarah in Brechot states:
R. Yacov b. Iddi points to a contradiction. One verse reads: "And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go," and the other verse reads: "And he was frightened!"
[The answer is that] he [Yaacov] thought that some sin might cause [God's promise not to be fulfilled].
Brechot 4A
So after receiving a divine promise, how can Yaacov lack confidence, but be in fear?

Says the Netivot Shalom: G-d’s promises were presented in the name of YudKayVavKay, which is a name representing the trait of divine mercy. And because of this Yaacov was afraid!

What did he fear? He feared that if he should slip up and sin, then this divine mercy would be lost and he would have to face the alternative – the trait of divine, uncompromising judgement.

So from this concern, already at the outset he takes 'precautionary measures' and invokes the trait of judgement, expressed in the name - KeloKim. Sensing how vulnerable he feels on the journey he is embarking on, and out of concern that he may slip up in his journey, he asks for divine judgement to be at his side from the start.

Question #3
Why does Yaacov seem to present conditions for a deal to G-d, stating his “terms up front” that need to be fulfilled

In comparing the differences between the promises of G-d to the responses of Yaacov, we see that Yaacov's focus and concern was to be protected from sin.

Says the Kli Yakar:

Protection from sin, or to not come to the point of actually sinning, this is dependent on our personal choices. 

But to be protected from being confronted with the possibility of sinning, this can only be provided by divine intervention. G-d's statement to Yaacov referred to providing him physical protection in the statement 'I will protect you wherever you go.' The pasuk uses the expresseion - 'wherever' (BKOL).  In life, all roads are dangerous and many paths lie before us to go on.

Yet Yaacov said 'protect me on this journey that I am taking.' And in response, G-d directs Yaacov to the special path that Yaacov should specifically go on, to be protected on.
What is that path? 
It is the Path of G-d and Torah and Mitzvot. 

We can see this directly in the words of G-d's promise 'I will protect you wherever you go' - where the word ANOCHI seems to be superfluous.

וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּך וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
Breisheit 28:15

And so the word 'ANOCHI' is added. This is to emphasize that divine protection is required to protect us when confronted with sinful influences and places. This is what Yaacov meant when he said 'protect me' and let me return 'complete' - meaning protected from sin and a complete person, devoid of sin.

Question #4 Why is Yaacov’s first concern for material protection?

Concerning physical protection, Yaacov was covered. G-d said 'I will protect you wherever you go' since  we have physical protection in Eretz Yisrael,  then we need  this protection when going out of Eretz Yisrael. G-d also promised to Yaacov 'and bring you back to this soil,' so Yaacov was ensured physical protection for  the full, round trip, back to Eretz Yisrael.

However Yaacov's concern was really about spiritual protection. He was concerned about not learning from the ways of Lavan. And not just Lavan, but also from the Canaanites and Emory in Eretz Yisrael. That is why Yaacov made his personal request stating 'and if I return in peace to my father's house' - not that he should be physically protected until reaching his father's house, but that Yaacov should be protected from the influence of sin throughout his journey (to not learn from Lavan, not be influenced by Canaanites, and Emory).

Then why Bread and clothes?

Yaacov was not looking to benefit materially, and we see this in 'if He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear' - where Yaacov asks for specifically these items. Yaacov wants to emphasize that he only needs to receive the most basic sustenance. This is to provide him the level of assurance that he should not be put under stress  out of of providing for himself, and driven to sin. Morever, if Yaacov's motives were for material gain, then he should have asked for  valuable goods like gold and pearls.

Question #5 why does Yaacov conclude with an offer to tithe?

Adds the Netivot Shalom:
Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessings,  it is as if he stole from Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Brechot 35A
The importance of making a brechah is that you make Hashem a partner in your actions, and in your life. But when you take advantage of this world without a brechah, you take the opposite approach and you alienate Hashem. As it says in Mishlei:
איש תהפוכות ישלח מדון, ונרגן מפריד אלוף
A perverse man incites quarrel, and a grumbler alienates the Lord.
Mishlei 16:28
Yaacov’s offer of tithes (maser) was not an attempt on his part to take on a new Mitzvah, rather this was his effort in taking his first steps into Olam Hazeh. Until this point, Yaacov had nothing to do with this world. He was a part of the spirituality of Yitzhak.  He was the quintessential yeshiva bochur. The Ish Tam. He didn't know anything about 'office politics.' Now his life stood at a crossroads, and was taking a turn, going down into this world. 

He we would be getting married, having children, going to work – and all in the house of Lavan – the most impure place possible.

So Yaacov’s vow is a way for him to deal with this upheaval, of this profound change in his life, of confronting the challenges of this world.  To be better prepared to handle the material and take on the challenges of this world - Olam HaZeh - he seeks to immediately establish that all his material gains should be transformed to spiritual ones, by declaring all his material growth to be bound to tithes - to have a spiritual value. 

This approach is also reflected in the vision of the ladder. The ladder's base is in this world, but the top (the head if you will) is in heaven.


So we see that this event goes far from representing self-doubt by Yaacov, and is not at all a form of 'striking a deal'. What we see here is a true dialog. G-d offers to provide physical protection and guidance. Yaacov accepts this implicitly and turns the discussion to the fate of his soul, asking for different ways to be protected from the  sinful influences of the world around him.

This provides us a guide for all of  our daily struggles. Every day, we go on journeys and leave the safety of our homes, and risk entering the world. On our journeys we are physically vulnerable to the dangers all around us. 

In life, we are really on a more important journey – a journey of the soul. This mission is constantly under attack, as we are bombarded by media messages selling us all kinds of foreign values and tempting us. Just as Yaacov was sensitive to the frailties of the human condition and  inherent weakness, he looked to G-d for guidance and protection, so as to ensure the success of his journey. For us, this provides us a good model for taking extra measures for navigating the road ahead in our own lives, and protecting our own souls.

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