Bereshit (Genesis) 28:10-32:3
This week’s portion sees Ya’akov on the move. The plot to ensure that the Abrahamic blessing and promise would continue through him, and not Esav his brother, had been revealed. Rivkah now sends him away to avoid almost certain murder. Very few families have a clean sheet regarding their shared history, but if you are seeking family skeletons in the cupboard, then here is a family that has some! This is a family, it seems, at war with itself. Yet as Ya’akov leaves Ha’aretz, the calling and promises of G-d are as sure as ever, both for himself and for all of us as his descendants by birth or faith.
It is a well-known Torah phrase ‘ALL things work together for good’ but no less true for that. So it was for Ya’akov and so too for us.
G-d had to humble Ya’akov considerably before he was ready to relinquish control over his life, so too with us so often, and so too with our people in our frequent disobedience to HaShem over the millennia. But G-d had to do it to make Ya’akov usable, to build into him the qualities of servanthood that would mean the plan of G-d could unfold without hindrance. We are no different. Yet in all this G-d was in total control, all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. We as the Jewish people have been called for a purpose and our election is sure. It is worth taking note that not all things that happen to us are good (or pleasant?), but they will ultimately be found to have been of purpose and therefore good in the ultimate sense of the word. Once G-d has called according to His purpose, His call is sure and irrevocable. We read in the letter to the Jewish community in Rome (Rom 11:26-29) that once He has chosen, He will finish the work begun. We should thank Him for that, as otherwise His covenants would be broken and we would all face an uncertain future with Him.
So Ya’akov finds himself at HaMakom, the Place as it described 6 times in the passage: The future Rock on which the Temple would be built, the very site of the Holy of Holies. That Ya’akov seems to have ‘stumbled’ into the presence of G-d is well documented and commented upon, as is his own response to all this: G-d is in this place and I did not know it. If ever there was a man of calling and promise who suffered from poor spiritual eyesight and discernment, this was he. As he sleeps he sees the reality around him, the ladder with angels going up and down. But the words spoken to him in the context of the angels going up and down are important. We read in Gen 28:13-15 that the promise given to Abraham is reiterated and guaranteed once more concerning Land and people, that the promise would in fact transcend ethnic borders to include others too, ‘all families of the earth’ who would join us in worshipping the One true G-d.
It is of note for us that Mashiach Yeshua took this part of the dream and applied it to Himself in the Messianic Writings (Yochanan 1:43-51). Yeshua is connecting Himself to Ya’akov, that the ingathering of the families of the earth would also feature in His plan, that the fulfilment of the ingathering back to Israel, the Promised Land and inheritance would be part of Mashiach’s calling too. Not only that, but also that as Ya’akov (in the flesh) became Israel of trusting (in the Spirit), so too Mashiach Yeshua will play a part in this transition too. He represents what Israel, all Jews who follow the Patriarchs of faith, does and is; a point not lost on some Jewish academics either. Mashiach Yeshua is the yes and amayn to all the promises of G-d.
But the final part of this is key: I will not forsake you or leave you. We can miss the importance of this, a relevance in fact that only becomes clear as we consider Ya’akov the man. It is clear from this section that Ya’akov actually had no problem with believing in G-d. Even the rather caustic and casual ‘if’ at the end reveals that G-d’s existence is not in doubt for him, yet clearly there is something missing. Belief does not equate with faith or trust. This is a painful lesson in today’s world too where the Western academic, world of thought/philosophy, its ‘mental’ inheritance lines up and often equates belief with faith. But the two are not the same. Ya’akov concludes his response with ‘then the Lord shall be my G-d’. This mental assent is far from trust and genuine faith, revealing an almost mechanistic attitude towards G-d.
Ya’akov’s comments are very illustrative of his spiritual condition in many ways. Not just here but later too when Rachel failed to conceive, instead of praying for her as Yitzchak had done in his day with Rivkah, his response to Rachel is ‘Am I in the place of
G-d who has kept you from having children?’ He then goes into Bilhah and she does conceive. It doesn’t occur to him that G-d might answer prayer in this way, why should He? As far as Ya’akov is aware, this G-d is far away and uninterested in the affairs of man, so it falls to Ya’akov to work out the future implications of this now 3 generational promise.
His ‘low faith’ attitude comes out later in his own life where he tries so hard to bring the blessing on himself by his own strength and power, as if the G-d who had intervened and promised in earlier times to his Fathers was somehow just a distant power or force, a higher being, a deity who was there but actually uninterested or unconnected (or even unable to connect?) with physical reality. You can imagine Ya’akov saying ‘someone up there is looking after me’. All this demonstrates that he is far from faith and genuine trust, yet he still IS part of the chosen people, a man under the covenants of G-d and a man who will indeed come to realise the full implications of all this and come through to faith in the end.
Here is a man who culturally, ethnically is ‘Jewish’, counted as part of the covenant of G-d, yet despite all this and even despite his own belief in G-d, has little if any trust and no faith. In short, we would say in modern parlance, he didn’t ‘know’ G-d. We know even in our day that this picture is true of so many of our people today. Yes, many Jewish people do believe in G-d, many do not, some are observant in a way, others reject Torah absolutely. Underneath it all is a distance that causes the heart of G-d to ache for His and our people, just as our own hearts ache.
One of the big questions that have perplexed the Jewish mind for centuries and more is the question of who is a Jew. One view argues that ethnic descent is the only boundary marker for all Jews, a definition of who is in or out. If you are not born Jewish then you cannot claim to be one. This position of course does not accurately reflect the teachings of Torah. But it does make the point that to be a Jew is to follow the Patriarchs, to live as they lived, to have the faith they had. This hallmark of the Jewish people is given BEFORE Sinai and any national covenant except the one given to Avraham. Surely this must be right. Rav Shaul would agree. To be Jewish is to have the faith and trust of the Patriarchs, first, before the acts of obedience (Mitzvot) in Torah. That hallmark is faith and trust, and not just ethnic descent.
But there is another concept here too. The original words to Ya’akov make it clear that the non-rejection and final acceptance by G-d is not based on us as His people, but on Him as our G-d. Through history G-d has given promises and assurances, predicated on His own existence and nature. That G-d would never leave us or forsake us is not because we were or are so nice/good as people. The Torah’s judgement on us stiff necked and rebellious stands squarely against such a position. In fact, we seem to be more like Ya’akov than we at first think. And that is the final link. Ya’akov becomes Israel; flesh is turned to faith and trust in the end.
With one party unable to respond in faith due to unbelief or sin, the initiation of any act of reconciliation must come unilaterally from
G-d. If all we have as Jews is the cultural shell of history as our cloak and identity, we are unlikely to take the first step towards Him. He must and does initiate. As Torah says ‘While we were yet sinners died for us’. Before we call He answers. He loved us first before we ever loved Him.
There is a future hope for our people because Ya’akov becomes Israel and will become Israel!