In the Torah portion Vayetzei, Jacob has left his family and is on a journey away from home.
Without a bed, he lays his head on a stone for a pillow. While he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder reaching the sky and angels are going up and down the ladder. In Jacob’s dream, God is standing beside him and, the Torah tells us, God speaks to Jacob. God tells Jacob that the land he promised to Abraham and Isaac, his grandfather and father, is also promised to Jacob and his descendants. And God promises, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Parshat Vayetzei: Genesis 28:10-32:3; Hosea 12:13-14:10.
Jacob wakes up from his dream and declares, “God is in this place and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob then takes the stone he used as a pillow and builds a monument to mark the place as holy, as an incredibly important moment in his life.
But then Jacob makes a vow that only if his needs are met will he accept the God of Abraham and Isaac as his God. “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,” then I’ll really commit to being a blessing and living a holy life.
Why is Jacob questioning God’s promise to be with him on his journey? Perhaps Jacob is not questioning God’s promise. Rather, Jacob’s statement that “if God protects him” is Jacob acknowledging that he is on an unknown journey and he is scared.
In this moment of fear, Jacob describes what he needs to feel safe and at his best. He needs basic necessities: bread to eat, clothing to wear and a safe home, all things Jacob is currently without on his journey.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to be at our best without food, comfortable clothing and a home where we feel safe to be ourselves. Our tradition is telling us that even with God’s assurance, Jacob remains human, concerned about the unknown journey ahead and how his needs will be met.
To be the holy people our tradition asks us to be, we need to strive to meet everyone’s basic needs. As Rabbi Hama said in the Talmud (Sotah 14a): “What does the Torah mean when it says, ‘You shall walk in the ways of the Lord’? Can a person really walk in the shadow of God? It means that we strive to live like God in the Torah.
“Just as God clothed the naked, so, too, we should clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick, so, too, we should visit the sick.”
With each action, we make the world a holier place.
Davey Rosen is associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel.
What do you need to feel you’re at your best? When you’re in a new situation, what do you need to be at your best? Have you ever noticed another person feeling out of place? What did you do or what could you do to help a person feel more comfortable?