Parashat Vayetze 5778
Limited Leverage: You Can’t Force God’s Hand
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat VaYetze opens as Yaakov runs for his life: He had been told that his brother Esav has murder on his mind, that he intends to take revenge on for Yaakov’s deceptive acquisition of blessings that he felt were rightly his own - and Yaakov doesn’t stick around to see if Esav will make good on his threat.
For his part, Yaakov had been put in an untenable situation. His mother Rivka had not merely encouraged him to impersonate his brother Esav and to secure their father’s blessing for himself, she had commanded him to do so. Yaakov faced an impossible choice: Should he obey his mother, if it means deceiving his father? Or should he ignore his mother’s orders, which may well have been motivated by the prophecy she had received years earlier? And were these blessings not rightfully Yaakov’s to take? Esav had abdicated his rights as firstborn years earlier; he had willingly, even enthusiastically, passed the responsibilities to his younger brother. Should the blessings not have accrued to Yaakov as part of the deal?
Aside from the complex interpersonal family relationships, there is another important perspective, which was lurking in the shadows in last week’s Parasha, namely, God’s perspective. Was Rivka, and, by extension, Yaakov, acting with Divine license? Were her instructions to Yaakov an outgrowth of the prophecy she had received, or had Rivka taken things into her own hands? If she was acting on her own, new questions arise: Can a blessing actually be “stolen”? Does God have a say in who is blessed, or are the blessings Yitchak bestowed on his son some sort of magical incantation that necessarily brought about the desired result? The blessings Yaakov “usurped” involved physical bounty and military-political power. Were these blessings, once they were uttered, guaranteed to whomever received them?
The inauspicious beginning of Yaakov’s journey is a stark contrast with the blessings in question: Yaakov is a fugitive; he is destitute and afraid for his life. He has no place to sleep, and no possessions. The blessings do not seem to have had any immediate magical effect.
As Yaakov slips away unto slumber, something magical does happen, he has an epiphany; God appears to him. This is not a simple point, for if God were truly displeased with Yaakov, we suspect he would not have been privileged to receive such a revelation. The content of the vision needs to be carefully considered. Of course, the most famous element is the ladder with its feet on the ground reaching into the heavens. And the angels which climb the ladder and return to earth.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. (Bereishit 28:12)
Then there is a Divine soliloquy:
And God was standing beside him and He said, “I am The Eternal, the God of your father Avraham and the God of Yitzchak. The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring.
Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your descendants.
Behold, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Bereishit 28:13-15)
It must have come as a relief to Yaakov that God appeared to him, and declared that He will remain Yaakov’s protector. Moreover, God reiterated what his father Yitzchak had promised him; the inheritance of the Land of Israel. However, the crux of the matter, is not just what God said, it is also what God did not say. There was no mention of the blessing designated for Esav. Regarding power and bounty there was an eerie silence, one which Yaakov certainly heard. The blessing designated for Esav was not coming to Yaakov. He would have to make his livelihood by the sweat of his brow, and not by divine providence.
Yaakov responds to the silence and declares, that if God provides even the bare minimum he would be grateful.
Yaakov made a vow. 'If God will be with me,' he said, 'if He will protect me on the journey that I am taking if He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return in peace to my father's house, then I will dedicate myself totally to God. Let this stone that I have set up as a pillar become a temple to God. Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You.' (Bereishit 28:20-22)
Clothing on his back, bread on his plate is all which Yaakov now imagines. He is not thinking of riches and power, just the bare minimum needed to survive. The silence of God spoke volumes. One cannot “steal a blessing”. One cannot force God’s hand. Yaakov sees the ladder with its feet on the ground and the angels first ascending and then coming down; to receive divine blessings we need to first create those angels based on our actions below, only subsequently will angels come down.
All that was accomplished by taking these blessings was not that Yaakov would be the beneficiary of stolen blessings, but rather that Esav would have less power, and less ability to wreak havoc. Sometimes a little less is more, sometimes your enemy having less can be a blessing.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Vayetze: