Vayetze – Anatomy of a Prayer
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: If God will be with me, and will guard me in the way which I am going, and He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and I will return in peace to my father’s home, then the Lord shall be my God. (Genesis 28:20-21)
Upon departing from his home and family Jacob prayed that God should safeguard him and provide for him. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch gleans from this prayer great lessons about life and priorities – the way Jacob approached life.
First Jacob asked for safety. He wanted security during his journey abroad, but he was not merely seeking personal safety. Jacob was looking to safeguard his possessions. In the first phrase of the Priestly Blessing – May the Lord bless you and safeguard you – it is implicit that there is no need for safeguarding unless there is first blessing. When Jacob asked for safeguarding he must have had something of great value that needed safekeeping. But Jacob had nothing, he came with no wealth! When Jacob met Rachel at the well, and he resolved at that time to marry her, he offered her nothing, no gifts. If Jacob had valuables he surely would have given something to Rachel at the time, just as his mother was given jewelry when she was approached at the well. When Jacob soon thereafter asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage he offered 7 years of his labour to earn her hand. If he had wealth he would surely have offered money instead. What then, was Jacob asking to safeguard?
Rav Hirsch explains that Jacob had something far more valuable than material possessions for which he was seeking security; Jacob had his integrity and gentle character to preserve. Earlier the Torah described Jacob as a “dweller of tents,” one who was immersed in contemplative study. Within the halls of the academy Jacob had thrived, and had developed and preserved his character without pressure from external influences. Now that Jacob was going out into the big wide world he was worried that he may fall into the habit of making compromises in order to get ahead. The temptation to bend the rules to achieve better sales or profit is ever-present in the business world, and Jacob knew that he couldn’t take for granted that his sense of honesty would always prevail.
Jacob has a bad rap. Portrayed in our literature as the man of truth, the narrative of the Torah presents a man of anything but truth. He coerced Esau into selling his birthright and later cheated him out of their father’s blessing. While herding Laban’s sheep Jacob deviously manipulated the flocks so that his portion grew at the expense of Laban’s wealth. Where is this integrity that Jacob prayed to preserve?
A closer look offers a more sympathetic view of Jacob. Recognizing that Esau was undermining the special role their family was to play, set out by Abraham’s covenant with God, Jacob’s purchase of the birthright could be seen more as a rescue operation than a selfish power-grab. Despite his newly acquired birthright Jacob was not inclined to take the actual blessings, and it was only his mother’s insistence that drove him to masquerade as Esau. Rebecca recognized that Jacob would need the strength of these blessings to succeed in the role he and his descendants would undertake. Finally, the Midrash relates that Laban was the real swindler with the flocks. He kept changing the parameters of compensation, offering Jacob the least and weakest of the sheep. Jacob ultimately had to play Laban’s game against him in order to secure what was rightfully his. Time and again this man of integrity was tested – specifically in ways that required him to deviate from his more gentle nature. Jacob’s skill in deceit made him even more cautious, prompting his prayer that these instances, demanding compromises, would not harm his inner integrity.
Next in the prayer Jacob asked for bread and clothing. His father had sent him to find a marriage partner and Jacob now required the means to support a family. As a head of household Jacob also had to present himself as a respectable member of society. Bread represents the sustenance with which a family is supported, and clothing allows one to participate in society with dignity. These two material elements enable one to be a productive member of civilization, contributing to the welfare and prosperity of greater society.
Finally Jacob concludes his request by declaring his wishes to return to his father’s home. He was going off on his own, becoming independent of his father’s household. This was his “Overseas Experience,” which gave him an opportunity to discover his personal strengths and face his challenges on his own. He could chart his own course, make decisions without influence from his mother. He could ignore phone calls from home and avoid responding to emails. He would be “off the grid” concerning his upbringing and family’s values. But Jacob didn’t want to disconnect. He wasn’t interested in throwing off the yoke of his childhood values. To the contrary, he wished to carry them with him throughout his sojourn. This way of life would continue to define Jacob, he would maintain the family faith and legacy. Jacob’s prayer therefore ended with his fervent hope that he “will return in peace to the house of his father.” His intent, even before he established his family, was that the inter-generational connection would remain, and he would continue to the carry the torch lit by his grandfather, passing it on to his children after him as well.