Cantor Eyal Bitton shares a few thoughts on prayer and the parasha of the week.

I Am With You

2023-11-25 Parashat Vayetze

There are two things Jacob gets wrong in this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayetze. The first is in relation to the beautiful dream referred to as Jacob’s Ladder. 

Jacob leaves Beersheba and heads out to Haran. One night, he finds himself in a city named Luz. He goes to sleep on the ground and has a revelatory dream. He dreams of a stairway that reaches the sky. And what’s even more profound is that, in this dream of Jacob’s, there are messengers of God that travel up and down this stairway. 

What an inspiring thought! This dream of a stairway to heaven implies that our actions in the earthly realm are communicated on high, and that God’s messages are communicated to us on earth. Heaven and earth are connected. 

In his dream, Jacob meets God. God promises the land to Jacob and his descendants, and reassures him that the divine presence will remain with him. God says, “Remember, I am with you.” (Genesis 28:15.) This promise is echoed in the Saturday evening Mincha prayers when we read “Uva LeTziyon”. The text promises that a redeemer from the house of Jacob will come to Zion and that God’s spirit “shall remain with you and with your descendants… now and forever.” 

When Jacob wakes up, he proclaims that God is present in this place and that “this is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17.) Jacob then renames the site Bethel, meaning “the house of God.”

But Jacob has it wrong! This particular place is not God’s house. This particular spot is not God’s home. God is not corporeal and, therefore, does not have a “home” in which to abide. Nor is this spot the gateway to heaven. In fact, the point of the dream was not to tell Jacob that this specific place was divine. It was to bless him, to comfort him with the knowledge that God is by his side, and to let him know that heaven and earth are intertwined. The location isn’t Luz/Bethel, it’s the entirety of the earth. It’s anywhere on the earth where one recognizes this truth.

The second thing Jacob gets wrong is that he makes his acceptance of God conditional upon God’s protection, upon God’s fulfillment of the divine promise. However, the promise was made in a dream. Was it a real promise? It may have been inspirational. It may have been life-changing. But it occurred in a dream. Jacob is deciding, in the real world, whether or not to accept God based on God keeping a promise made in a dream, not necessarily in reality.

Additionally, Jacob’s vow to accept God depending on the fulfillment of God’s promise is selective. In Jacob’s dream, God promises him, “I will protect you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land.” (Genesis 28:15.) Jacob vows to accept God if God protects Jacob, nourishes him, and brings him safely to his father’s house. What’s missing? The second half of the promise. God promised to protect Jacob and then bring him back to this land. All Jacob focuses on is the first part of the promise.

Jacob gets it wrong – but is that good or is that bad? Take note that Jacob doesn’t wait for the second half of God’s promise to be fulfilled before accepting God. Jacob will embrace God even before the full promise is realized. This, I’d argue, is good. It’s a good thing to get wrong. 

In our lives, we get plenty wrong. We misinterpret, we misunderstand, we misconstrue, we forget, and more. We do so at work, we do so with our friends, with our children, and with our life partners. 

Our people have recently experienced a ground-shaking moment. The October 7 massacre will change our people in ways we do not yet know. But, like Jacob, we must recognize that there is great significance to this experience; we must recognize that there is something we must learn from this experience and that it will have an influence on our future path and our destiny as a people. 

Like Jacob, we may get some of it wrong. But, like Jacob, we recognize that this moment is life-changing. We recognize that our future has forever changed. We recognize that there is a shining and promising future for our people. We recognize that this future is enabled through a commitment to God. We recognize that the promise to put God in our lives is to be made now, not in an unspecified time when the entirety of God’s promise to us has been fulfilled. We recognize that heaven and earth are intertwined. We’ll always remember God’s comforting words to Jacob, also known as “Israel”: “Remember, I am with you.” 

God is with us.