If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything. They will hold you to it. So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”
At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran. He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.
When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night. Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road. He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven. Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him. In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth. They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world. Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.
That’s a great dream! Not bad for a night’s sleep.
Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God. Then Jacob makes a vow:
If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Genesis 28:20-22)
Jacob has just promised three things: 1. The Lord shall be My God. 2. This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim. 3. I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.
How are we to understand this vow? It seems kind of redundant. God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan. Why does Jacob need to repeat it?
The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity. It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him. “You want to be my God? You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”
But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing. He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow. He has, quite literally, nothing to give.
So he offers God a share in future earnings. All that he can do is make a vow: “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”
That is quite a promise. Will Jacob deliver?
By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed. Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune. The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan. The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.
Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau. The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family. After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again. Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder. This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.
God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.
God has certainly delivered God’s part. Now it is Jacob’s turn.
Remember, Jacob promised three things: Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe. Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil. Is this the same pillar or a different one? Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God. Promise one—check. Promise two—check. Promise three—…silence.
Did Jacob renege on his promise? Has he broken his vow?
The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it. When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune. Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.
Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe? Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East. A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court. The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty. There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.
Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering? That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.
Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France. Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God. Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.
Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7). Jacob tithes his children. He sets aside one tenth of his sons. Who is the lucky lad? Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God. The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi. Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.
Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive. In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth. In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service. Both are accepted by God.
It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today. When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?
Our elected officials do this all the time.
It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows. They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.
To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.” It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.
As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.” Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”
Jacob wants to do the right thing. His vow is sincere. But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything. He is desperate. The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy. Will he remember his earlier promise? When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?
I’ll speak for myself. I have never been in Jacob’s shoes. I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn. So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.
I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses. I hope to be able to do the same for my children.
While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.
I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot. Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months. As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country? How bad would things have to be?” I cannot even begin to imagine.
I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection. I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.
Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes. Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today. What should we give back?
Who in our community needs help? Who in the global community? What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?
Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.
We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.