A Strange Vow

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov experiences the famous prophetic dream of angels going up and down the ladder. He awakens, in awe of what just transpired. Immediately afterwards, Yaakov makes an extremely strange vow, including what would appear to be an absurd set of conditions (Bereishit 28:20-21):

“And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and 

He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father's house, and the Lord will be my God ”

It is difficult to take such a vow literally. Are we to believe Yaakov’s belief hinged on God “coming through” for Yaakov?

The Sforno, recognizes this problem, and offers an incredible elucidation as to what was taking place here. He first cites the following from the Talmud (Eiruvin 41b):

“Our Rabbis learned: Three things deprive a man of his senses (daato) and of a knowledge of his creator (data kono), idolaters, an evil spirit and oppressive poverty. [In what respect could this matter? — In respect of invoking heavenly mercy to be delivered from them]”

He explains that Yaakov’s conditional vow was based on avoiding these three fates. The Sforno proceeds to elaborate on these three possible negative outcomes, applying them to the verses in the Torah. The “guarding of the way” refers to avoiding a potential subjugation at the hand of evil people. The “He will give me bread to eat” is speaking of escaping from oppressive poverty. Finally, the “return in peace” references the evading of any serious illness (the rational understanding of the “evil spirit”). 

Clearly, the Sforno’s explanation is quite difficult to understand without some further analysis. The three outcomes mentioned in the Talmud are fairly extreme. Normally, when we engage in prayer, we do not beseech God to help us avoid calamitous outcomes, such as praying one will not get killed in an earthquake when there is no indication one is coming or praying one never gets sick (rather we pray for healing). Was Yaakov really concerned about these theoretical but unlikely outcomes? 

The consequence of these fates needs to be understood as well. What does it mean to be deprived of one’s senses (daato) and knowledge of the Creator (daat kono)?

Another question needs to be asked about the last part of the above quoted section of Talmud. It is clear the Talmud is troubled by the above questions, because it essentially asks: what is being taught here? The answer, as expanded upon by various commentators, is that a person prays for “normative” issues he or she may be experiencing, asking God for mercy. However, as the Talmud makes clear, a person wants to avoid the condition of being removed from daato and daat kono. Therefore, one should pray that the outcomes listed above never come about so that he enters into this unique condition. Again, we must ask, should a person really spend his time engaged in this type of prayer?

The idea of praying during trying times is directly tied to the concept of God acting in a merciful manner. When a person recognizes through the difficulty of his situation how dependent on God he or she truly is, a strong effect pervades the entire existence of the individual. Turning to God for mercy is more than searching for an escape from the current situation. There is a tremendous perfection gained in understanding one’s relationship vis-a-vis God. The concept here is that turning to God and asking for mercy involves a process that is extremely important to the overall perfection of the individual. One could even argue that the process is as important as the (hopeful) result of a change in the current situation. This being the case, when a person inevitably has a difficulty to overcome in their lives, it becomes critical for them to be able to recognize God as merciful and subsequently engage in the process of prayer that is so powerful. What, though, would a person do in a situation where he could not access this pathway?

The Talmud cites three different scenarios. If we were to categorize them, we could see three main themes. The situation of being subjugated by the evil person refers to a forced presentation of another ideology opposed to Judaism. This would be a severe philosophical trial. The idea of being sick is not speaking of a cold. Instead, the Talmud is referring to an ailment that is quite severe. Finally, there is the oppressive poverty, an indication of the highest state of insecurity; this refers to extreme psychological hardship. When one experiences one of these excessive situations, no matter the realm, he becomes unable to function in any normal way as a human being. His mind becomes entirely tied to whatever the extreme situation might be. He is unable to examine himself, to determine how he can improve himself and maybe merit a positive response by God. He cannot turn to God, unable to formulate clear thoughts regarding the Creator. His soul, in some sense, is compromised. He loses his humanity, relegated in to being a vessel. To suffer in such an extreme state means a person becomes unable to engage in the process so critical to gaining mercy from God. 

It is possible, then, that a person is not praying just to avoid this extreme state. A person who involves himself in prayer when facing a challenging situation understands the importance of tapping into this experience. He will also acutely understand how not being able to access it would be very problematic. The prayer, then, is focused not on the outcome of philosophical, psychological or physical distress. Instead, it concerns the effect such a state has on a person’s ability to enter into a mode of appropriately requesting mercy from God. A compromised state of existence means a person is locked out of critical concepts concerning God’s mercy. A person therefore would want to avoid this at all costs.

If this indeed is the case, then the Sforno’s explanation resonates nicely. One feature we see about Yaakov’s personality throughout the Torah is that even though he is promised something by God, he also knows that the promise is contingent on his level of perfection. Yaakov recognized that as a human being, he could face a situation where he was challenged, and may even fail. But as well, Yaakov understood a system existed where if he was in a difficult situation, he would have the means of not just praying for mercy, but raising himself to a higher level of perfection as a result, and continue to merit the promise. But what could he do if he was locked out of the system, where the calamity was so severe that he could not beseech God appropriately for mercy? It was that very concern, according to the Sforno, that Yaakov thought of when formulating his conditional vow.

There is an important lesson we learn from this episode. We know a person should always be vigilant about his personal state of perfection, always concerned about a possible slide to sin. We face challenges all the time, and none of us has the confidence to say that we can definitively overcome them. We never should chase after the challenge, but if it does come upon us, we know there is a method where we can merit a possible altering of circumstances. However, we must always be aware that a situation could emerge where our existence is so compromised, the ability to even engage in this process is removed from us. Yaakov feared this possibility, and expressed this succinctly in his conditional vow.