I don’t often think about God. I don’t often experience God-moments, and if I think I do, well…I don’t always know that’s what they are, and don’t spend time pondering it, either. But I believe in God. Don’t ask.
Anyway, Jacob has a God-moment in this parasha Vayetzei. He has a “slap-my-head and spin-me-around” God moment. He’s just left Beersheva, headed out to the land of his father’s people, and the first night out, he camps out under the stars, with a stone for his pillow. He has a dream about a ladder, with angels going up and down. God is at the top of the ladder, offering a familiar promise of many descendants. Then God adds an extra phrase, “Here I am with you. I will watch over you wherever you go…I will not let go of you.” Jacob wakes up, says, “ (Whoa!) God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” Then, after Jacob makes his stone pillow into an anointed place (good thing he had that vial of oil with him), names the spot, and makes his own vow: If God watches over him on this journey, makes sure he has food, clothes and safety, then Jacob will believe in the God of his fathers.
It’s conditional theology; “Show me what You’ve got, and I’ll believe in You.” The ultimate “if/then clause.”
Rabbi Shefa Gold says that Jacob was realizing the power of being present when he said, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” She says Jacob was fully present, realizing that God was in this place, bamakom hazeh, and that when we’re really present in our lives, everywhere we stand can be a place where God stands, where the ladder is there for us to reach to the heavens and be grounded on the earth, to be open to all realms of earth and sky.
Jacob was certainly open to the elements, but I think he was more concerned about his own welfare. He had good reason. It’s hard to feel that secure, that open to the presence of God when you’re worried about food in your stomach and clothes on your back. It’s hard to be spiritual and trusting of the heavens when the bills are piling up. It’s hard to think about the meaning of life, when you’re just trying to make sure you can live.Maybe Jacob could recognize that God had been there, but didn’t really have enough faith to bank his life on it, which is why I think he was so conditional in his vow. Jacob needed to see proof of God’s protection before literally taking the leap of faith. Jacob’s grandfather Abraham showed unconditional faith when he followed God’s instructions that led to his taking his beloved son up a mountain and putting a knife to his throat. I haven’t got that kind of faith, and apparently, neither did Jacob.
So, I find Jacob’s conditional theology somewhat comforting. Maybe Jacob was having a hard time believing in himself, much less God. He had just left home with a stolen firstborn blessing and a brother bent on killing him. That had to put him in gloomy mindset. When times are really tough, like so many of us are experiencing now, faith might seem like a luxury. And Jacob’s story says it’s ok to be a little conditional with God.
Which is why, I think, God could recognize Jacob’s conditional faith even before Jacob could. Before Jacob woke up, and after the standard “you’ll have lots of offspring” promise, God went a little further with the promise of personal protection. God could say it, but Jacob either couldn’t hear it or couldn’t believe it. So Jacob said, “Show me!” Which brings me back to Rabbi Gold’s insight; that by being present and open, Jacob could accept, but not have to reciprocate, the promise of eternal faith. God would be ok with that. God would not only be there for the future, but right then, right there, when Jacob needed it most. Things might not always be great, but “I am with you, I will not let go of you..”
Good to know, even if, well, like I said, I don’t think about it. Should I choose to temper my belief with doubt, or should I feel I can’t afford the comfort of certainty that all will be well, that doesn’t eliminate me from the protective promise. For now, thanks to Jacob and his “God-moment”, that’s enough.