As Yaakov Avinu begins his journey toward Charan and his encounter with his uncle and future father in law, Lavan, we read one of the more famous stories in the Torah, that of Yaakov’s dream. The image of Yaakov asleep, his head on a rock, dreaming of a ladder soaring skyward with angels climbing and descending it, is familiar to many of us from our pre-school days. We might, therefore, find the observation of the Abarbanel a bit disturbing. The Abarbanel suggests that it is entirely possible that Yaakov does not immediately recognize this vision for what it was, namely, his first prophecy. When Yaakov awakes, he is unsure of how to interpret this dream. Was it real, or was it “just a dream”? This suggestion is only startling in context of our familiarity with the story. Other neviim, most famously Shmuel, also failed to identify the divine source of their first prophecies. Even Moshe Rabbenu, according to some interpretations, had to be eased into his role as prophet (see our parsha shiur on Shmot from last year). It is therefore not surprising to imagine (even if, as the Abarbanel himself readily acknowledges, no lesser authority than the Rambam disagrees) that Yaakov, too, was disoriented by his initial nevua, and was not quite sure that it was authentic.
The question that leads the Abarbanel to this conclusion is the neder that Yaakov takes at after he awakes. This oath has puzzled commentators from the time of the Midrash. A quick review of the relevant passukim (28:20-22) tells us why. “And Yaakov made the following vow, saying: ‘If HaShem will be with me and will guard me on the path on which I am embarking, and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear. And if I return in peace to my father’s home and Hashem will be my Lord (Elokim). And this stone which I have made a monument will be the house of the Lord, and all that He gives me I will tithe to Him.’ ” The passukim seem to suggest that Yaakov does not trust in the promise of HaShem given to him during his dream (see specifically passuk 15). The Abarbanel’s solution is simple. Yaakov did not believe what he had seen, not because he doubts Hashem, but because he doubts himself. Was that truly a promise that I received from Hashem, or was I merely deluding myself? His neder is the way he seeks to find out.
While most other commentators do not accept this suggestion, the approach, namely that Yaakov doubts not Hashem but himself, has roots that stretch back to the Midrash. In Midrash Rabba (71) we find the lesson implied here is that even a Tzaddik can not count on himself not to sin. Hence, Yaakov asks that his own potential shortcoming s not short-circuit the promises that HaShem has given him. This approach is familiar to us from the other Avot as well, as the stories where Avraham seems to question whether HaShem will in fact fulfill the various promises made to him attest.
The theme of Yaakov doubting his ability to stand up to the spiritual tests awaiting him is picked up by by the Seforno, who then moves in an interesting direction. The Seforno sees three major factors that can lead man away from HaShem: Non Jews (i.e. their culture), madness, and poverty (see the Gemara in Eruvin 41b, immediately after the Mishna). The Seforno sees in Yaakov’s oath a reference to at least two of these factors, the influence of pagan culture (U’shmarani) and poverty (V’natan li lechem). Yaakov’s “payback” for this protection is that HaShem will be Elokim.
We know that Elokim is the name of G-d that is used when we refer to G-d’s attribute of be just, even harshly so. Hence, says the Seforno, Yaakov promises haShem that if given the proper circumstances he will accept G-d as judge as well. The idea here is that Yaacov recognizes that man has responsibilities to G-d that he can not shirk, but his ability to fulfill those responsibilities is limited by circumstance. What Yaakov requests, therefore, is that HaShem provide the necessary support so that Yaakov can fulfill his part of the bargain. Man can not face the judgement of Elokim if he did not have the support of HaShem (signifying the attribute of Mercy) along the way. We bear ultimate responsibility, but without HaShem’s help along the way we can not hope to successfully stand before Him in judgement.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch develops this idea a bit more fully. Commenting on Yaakov’s request for food and clothing, Rav Hirsch points out that the struggle for a livelihood often forces people to make painful choices and questionable compromises. How many people, asks Rav Hirsch, have compromised themselves, religiously and morally, in order to get ahead, or perhaps merely to survive. How many of us grew up with stories of family members who faced the decision of whether to work on Shabbat or not to have work the following Monday? How many of us have faced decisions on how to behave in the workplace, decisions that might have cost us chances of advancement or even our jobs? Yaakov, says Rav Hirsch turns to HaShem and asks that he be given the strength to make the right decisions as he moves to build his home and family. (It is interesting to note that the Kli Yakar focuses on the “comfortable living” side of this equation. Yaakov, says the Kli Yakar, only asks for his basic needs. This is because he wishes to avoid the pitfalls of material wealth, which all too often leads man away from HaShem. While Yaakov ultimately becomes immensely wealthy, he recognizes that this is not where his priorities lie.)
Like the Seforno before him, Rav Hirsch does not view this as a free ride. Only a G-d who demands, says Rav Hirsch, is one that can give in mecy and love. For why does HaShem give to us, if not in order for us to further His will? HaShem’s mercy is not only so that after 120 years we can face G-d, but so that during those 120 years we make something of ourselves, and the world around us a little bit better place.