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What God Promised

Now, it's Jacob's story. We pick up just after Jacob has connived to
cheat his brother Esau out of his birthright. Over the next weeks we
will find Jacob's behavior to others makes him more Laban's descendant
than Abraham and Isaac's. Toward his life's end Jacob will be a man
sorely disappointed with most of his children and full of
grievances. By then our patriarch Jacob will have become Israel. Torah
scholars through the ages have found reasons why each of Jacob's
failings are actually creditable, but it takes a lot of work.

The question that intrigues me about this parashah this year grows out
of the story of Jacob's ladder. During his dream of the ladder, God
makes extravagant assurances to Jacob that he will inherit the
promises made to Isaac and Abraham. Jacob's descendants will be as
many as the dust of the earth, all families will bless themselves by
Jacob and his descendants, and God will be with Jacob to protect him
wherever he goes.

You would think that when he awakes, Jacob would say something about
his amazing destiny, even be humbled by the enormity of the promises
and what they might mean for his conduct. But, instead, Jacob's
immediate focus is solely on this place as being one where God is
present. It is only the next morning that Jacob begins to reflect on
the promise and even bargain with God: If God does all that has been
promised, then Jacob will accept God as his god and tithe. This
certainly sounds like Jacob has come down to earth.

Or perhaps the promise in the dream is one he is already familiar with
as a family legacy.

Or perhaps he recalls that amidst the dream God's promises took an
unsettling turn. God told Jacob: "I will not abandon you, until I have
done what I told you."

This must have created enormous dissonance for Jacob. On the one hand,
how wonderful to have the promise fulfilled. On the other hand, once
it is, Jacob is on his own, without God's protection. Or perhaps he
dismissed that statement as just a dream.

I wish I knew the right questions to ask about this promise with its
statute of limitations. Here is what I have come up with so far.

When this line first jumped out at me, it made me wonder whether God's
promise has been fulfilled or not and whether, if so, we have been
abandoned or still have God's protection. The evidence is equivocal at
best. We are doing pretty well as a people, but things are far from
perfect.

To decide whether Jacob's ancestors are as many as the dust of the
earth we would need a definition of who all counts. Is it just Jews
recognized as such by some official group? If so, which group? Would
it instead include everyone who is affected by this legacy? And just
how do we measure and compare the amount of dust versus the number of
people?

And what about the second part of the promise? Can we say that all
families bless themselves by Jacob and his descendants? What would it
mean to bless themselves? Would Jacob's descendants be put on a
pedestal? Would it instead be their influence and actions that have
created the opportunity for blessing? Do they have to know they are
blessing Jacob's descendants or just be thankful for the way things
are?

And, to get to the bottom line, if God's protection ends when the
promise is fulfilled, do we want it to be fulfilled? What are the
advantages and disadvantages? Why would it end at that point? Would it
be because God's protection is no longer needed? Or would it mean
reaching the shelf life of our relationship? What if things fall
apart? Do we get God's protection back?

Finally, if we are Israel, are we like Israel the man -- bitter and
aggrieved -- or full of the wonder that God is in this place where we
are. In our dreams.

I invite you to add your own questions. Only by seeking and asking can
we grow in our humanity and personhood -- and take our role as children
of the covenant.
--
Ellen Dannin is Fannie Weiss Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor
of Law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and a former member of
the Ann Arbor Havurah, Dor Hadash in San Diego, and Congregation
T'chiyah in Detroit.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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