Our sages teach us that the actions of the ancestors are omens for their descendants. We like to attribute many qualities to those developed by our ancestors. The kindness of Abraham, the devotion of Isaac, the humility of Moses, all these are personalities we are proud of and we claim to be their heirs. Abraham’s negotiations on behalf of Sodom opened the door for pleading with God, using tactics such as the negotiations Abraham used. We are capable of sacrificing much, giving up even our own lives for the sake of serving God – we acquired this capacity from Abraham who first demonstrated his willingness to give up everything, his own child, at God’s behest.
We also celebrate the traits of Jacob, although not all of them appear desirable. His deceptions we see as cunning survival strategies. Otherwise Jacob is specifically known as the man of truth, the perfect harmony of Abraham’s kindheartedness and Isaac’s pure devotion.
In his flight from Esau Jacob camps at night and dreams of a ladder. He has a vision of God’s promise to him, reiterating the promise to his fathers that the land will be given to his descendants. The vision continues with God reassuring Jacob that He is with him and will watch over Jacob during his travels. God vows that He will fulfill His word to Jacob.
Jacob awakes in the morning, builds a monument and then makes a vow. “If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; If I return in peace to my father’s house – then Hashem will be a God to me.”
The commentaries recognize the difficulty of this passage. Jacob seems to be making a condition, accepting God’s sovereignty only if God cares for him and ensures his well-being until he returns to his father’s home. The flip side, if God does not watch over him, if he goes hungry for food and lacks for clothing to warm him; if he is unable to return to his father’s house – then he does not accept God’s sovereignty!
Maybe this is where many Jews take liberties from.
In any event, the commentaries have numerous approaches to reconcile this difficulty. One interesting approach notes that Jacob was raised in the borders of that land which God had promised to his fathers. Jacob grew up never having left those boundaries. He understood that this is the homeland of Abraham’s descendants, the place where they can appropriately live their lives according to the will of God. Jacob knew of no other way. Now, leaving this land for the first time, Jacob was unsure whether God could be worshiped outside of that land. These were uncharted waters. Would his relationship with God remain as before or would it be compromised by his departure? Jacob could not be sure and he therefore expressed his fear of losing his ability to serve God on his journey.
Jacob recognized that it would be difficult to be true to his heritage in exile. He could not know that the destiny of the Jewish people would be shaped by his experience. Jacob’s faithfulness in the house of Laban served as the model for future Jewish life in exile. Difficult as it is, Jacob’s descendants have succeeded in carrying on the traditions without compromise through the millennia of exile. Individuals have fallen off the tracks along the way but Jacob’s descendants have succeeded in preserving the pristine character of the tradition passed down thousands of years.
Jacob’s life is indeed defined by exile. Eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons were born in exile. Jacob himself lived many years away from the center of the legacy founded by his grandfather. The last years of his life Jacob lived with his family in Egypt. Yet all that time Jacob remained faithful. He adapted – he was no longer the man of tents, he now was a man of the fields – but he showed that a full Jewish life can go on, despite the challenges, in a land far away from the center of it all.
In next week’s Torah portion Jacob sends a message to his brother Esau telling him that he had been living with Laban all these years. The word ‘living’ is ‘garti,’ and the Midrash reverses the order of the letters to spell ‘taryag,’ the numeric value of 613. Jacob succeeded in keeping all of the Mitzvot despite his exile, paving the way for his descendants who would need all possible support and encouragement to follow in Jacob’s path in exile. The actions of the fathers are a sign for their descendants.