Then you will go your way safely
And not injure your feet.
When you lie down you will be unafraid;
You will lie down and your sleep will
You will not fear sudden terror
Or the disaster that comes upon the wicked,
For the LORD will be your trust;
He will keep your feet from being caught.
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)
The Midrash cites Proverbs 3 as proof assuring Jacob’s safety when “[he] left Beersheba and set out for Haran” by also emphasizing “You will go your way safely. And not injure your feet,” and continues with “When you lie down you will be unafraid [of Esau and Laban].” Further “You will lie down and your sleep will be sweet” meaning when “[Jacob] came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night [he] lay down in that place.”
Last week’s Torah portion is so assuring that Jacob will follow faultlessly and successfully Mother Rebekah’s script to steal away Esau’s birthright. While complicit, Jacob does not seem to own the script nor his deceptions of his father Isaac. While older brother Esau is skillful in the field, Rebekah trains Jacob in the art of power, particularly mental legerdemain. Rebekah is sure to reshape Jacob’s conscience by her accepting responsibility for the ruse. So it is that Jacob does not yet own his intentions in his dealings with brother Esau or in dishonoring his father Isaac.
Jacob’s actions are his. Still, it is a nervous read as we wonder about Jacob’s response to his moral breach; only momentarily does Jacob protest his mother’s design. Jacob does deceive his father; and he does cheat his brother. Yet, Jacob has yet to find his own voice. Domineering yet dutiful to God’s designs, Rebekah leads her son for the right purposes by tempting Jacob’s youthful greed and lust for the power that the birthright gives him. It is not until Jacob experiences his life away from his parents and depends on his own character does Jacob mature. To be sure, we do observe Jacob’s tottering until he has a night in which he rights himself. For Jacob, an encounter with God was enough. For us, perhaps not so much.
We live with uncertainty. Most of us do not right ourselves or achieve any measurable equanimity like Jacob at the end of his “night to remember.” Some people barely cope with change while others enjoy it. Not sure of what paths they will travel or how they should be traversed, the fearful want to find ways to make their trek easier. It would be better if they had a destination in mind, but many do not. Jacob knew his destination better after the Night. For us, similar occurrences are rare.
My father and teachers put in my life’s toolbox poems “If” by Rudyard Kipling and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Lord Tennyson, and yes, Psalm 23 by David. Each has served me well along the way. Of course, these were the early standouts that still have gravity so many years later. Combined, they provide a foundation on which to build personal equanimity, an admixture of courage and calm in the midst of fright that plagues a young person before entering a work life. The once often-quoted Israeli expression “Ein breira”, “there is no choice,” also salted my life wisdoms. Each poem contains powerful images, metaphors for personal trials: Tennyson and David’s the Valley of Death; Kipling teaches about the divine within us by turning a verse in Psalm 24 into a suggestion that humility before God is O.K., but self-confidence is better: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” I guess that Kipling did not think we are capable of both.
Jacob is on the run away from his past because he is afraid of being pursued by a mad brother – and in pursuit of his future, seeking a wife among his mother’s people, the only noble purpose about his flight. Yet Jacob is courageous because he is flying solo for the first time in his pampered life. But not much longer. Jacob sleeps; God assures him of his heritage and his progeny. He is quick to commemorate the moment by setting up and anointing a pillar made from his stone pillow and naming it House of God. A younger Jacob, unsure of the script, would not have responded so. From automata to maybe a mensch-in-the-making capable of interpreting serendipity, there is evidence that Jacob is growing until the reader notes that Jacob does have conditions for continuing his relationship with God.
The Torah is our Book and yet for many a modern reader it seems that its events recount the trials and rewards of God’s presence in other peoples’ lives, ancient ones at that. Are the personalities of Torah for us like the Nephilim were for early biblical people – that is, are they legend whose existence remains a wisp from history and irrelevant to their lives? Does God care about me the way God cared about the Ancestors?
I do not argue about God. Yet, this past summer I came close when in a rabbinic circle I revealed what I have believed for a long time – that God does not care particularly about me – that I am not bothered that God is not my personal guardian, as he was our Ancestors’. I do not mind offering the comforting words of Proverbs 3 assuring safe passage when I address the deceased at their funerals, assuring the living that their loved ones are protected in death. (Clearly, not the intended purpose of the passage.) I am comforted by its words also – but I don’t believe them. I assure you that I have a strong relationship with God; it’s just that God does not know it. I don’t look for reciprocity or a response from God that I recognize by a divine imprimatur. I am fine with that. My prayers do not beckon God – although I have cried out on occasion just comforted that I could.
My words upset a colleague – enough so that he waited for the turns of other colleagues to pass, and we were nearly adjourned before he thunderously addressed me: “God loves you!”
Yeah, maybe, but not as much as God loved Jacob. And I don’t have a problem with that. I guess I have not experienced my “night to remember.” I don’t need to in order to love God.