This week’s Torah reading, Vayetzei, contains Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the sky with angels ascending and descending. Jacob is fleeing from his brother, Esau, and must leave his home for the first time. God pronounces covenant to Jacob, and promises him the land of Israel, and the wealth of descendants. God also pledges to accompany Jacob wherever he goes, and return him to his homeland. It’s a beautiful and reassuring moment.
However, when Jacob wakes up and revisits his dream, he strikes a different agreement with God. Jacob pledges that if God stays with him, keeps him safe, gives him food and clothing while he’s away, as well as returns him safely to his father’s house, only then will Jacob make God his God. Jacob has turned the covenantal promise into a conditional one. This is the instance when we watch covenant become a partnership of pledge. It is Jacob who sets out the details of a human response.
We live our Judaism within the frame of our history and our ancestral visions. But within that is the empowerment of each person to expand and define. Our prayers include Jacob’s innovations, as we always include prayers for safety, peace, protection and sustenance. Yet we also know that personal prayers are defined by each person. Our Sages taught us that our formal prayers must always be accompanied by our personal ones.
Jacob was leaving his home in fear of his life. God assuring him of spiritual companionship and future descendants did not speak to his human moment. The visions of our ancestors changed the world, but they each began with a personal yearning they put into words.
At times, formal prayer can feel distant and opaque – those are the times to remember Jacob, his dream and his pledge. Jewish prayer is an open door to cross and find the comfort of words Jews have said for millenia, or to find the truth of the moment and express only that to God.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.