Drash on Parashat Vayeitzei
Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore
Dr Ron Wolfson has opened our eyes to the concept of Relational Judaism, in which our Jewish communities are built on a foundation of sacred relationships formed among all of our community members. These are relationships for the sake of relationship - for the purpose of seeing another person as their whole self, getting to know their stories, their hopes, their dreams, and what keeps them up at night. Relationships like these are an ideal, one that we are constantly striving towards in our communities.
Outside of our communities (and sometimes within them too!), our interactions with other people in our lives can more often be categorised as “transactional.” You do this, I do that. Transactional relationships aren’t bad; they’re a necessary part of human life. We need something from someone, they need something from us. Buber’s description of “I-It” interactions, in which we see the other as totally separate from us, an object outside of ourselves, can be applied to these kinds of relationships.
Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitzei, opens with an interaction between Jacob and God that seems to have the potential to be a radically transformative relational moment, but very quickly Jacob takes it in another direction. The first scene in Vayeitzei is Jacob’s famous dream, in which he encounters God, hears the repeated promise that God has made to Jacob’s father and grandfather before him, and finally wakes up to declare, “God was in this place, and I did not know.” But the story doesn’t end there. Jacob goes on to vow his conditional devotion to God,, which Nehama Leibowitz points out is the first recorded vow in Torah. “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house, Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21) Jacob is firmly in the realm of the transactional, despite the majestic theophany he has just had.
What do we make of Jacob’s conditional response? Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg sees this vow as a sign of Jacob’s emotional and spiritual immaturity. The mystical experience he has just had isn’t enough; Jacob needs concrete evidence of God’s presence through physical protection, nourishment, and clothing. The medieval commentator Abravanel is quick to point out that Jacob’s grandfather Abraham never would have acted like this.
And yet I wonder if there’s a different way to understand Jacob in this moment, to see his shift towards the transactional and conditional more gently. Rabbi Ruttenberg reminds us that, “Jacob isn’t really that unusual. A lot of us are deeply wrapped up in our personal, individual spiritual feelings - excited about having warm, aesthetic experiences that feel good, and most of us are busy missing the memo.” It is easy and comfortable to stay in the realm of the transactional, whether with other people or in our relationship with the Divine. Midrash offers yet another perspective, that Jacob’s conditional oath was a necessary step in his relationship with God. God reveals the Divine Self to those who reach out to God, who call out to God from wherever they are - whether that is from a place of openness to transformative relationship, or from a place of narrowly focusing on one’s physical needs. God meets us where we are.