Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
Yaakov Avinu left his father’s house on a journey which lasted 22 years. On his way to Charan, he falls asleep and has a wonderful dream and prophecy. Hashem says to him, “I will be with you, and I will guard you wherever you go; I will bring you back to this land. I won’t abandon you until I have fulfilled all which I have told you (that I will do for you).” This reassuring message would seem to be all that Yaakov needs to continue on his quest for a wife and a family with confidence. Yet, when Yaakov wakes from his sleep, he makes a monument and a solemn vow. He says, “If Hashem will be with me and keep me safe on the way which I am going, He will provide me with food and clothes. I will return in peace to my father’s house and Hashem will be known as my G-d. I will make this monument into a place of worship and tithe everything which He gives me.” This is puzzling. Did Yaakov doubt Hashem’s promise? Why did he have to seek Hashem’s protection with a vow? Wasn’t Hashem’s promise enough?
Rashi, following the approach of the Gemara, explains that Yaakov was uncertain that this trip would leave him as righteous and worthy as he was now. He had spent the first part of his life in the shadow of his great parents as a “dweller of tents” pursuing Torah and righteousness. Now, he was heading into the world where he would have to deal with some negative personalities and the general temptations which present themselves in the big world. Yaakov wasn’t sure he would be able to preserve his character, and if he would fail, he would forfeit the protections and wonderful destiny which Hashem had promised him. This is what he was asking. He wanted Hashem to assist him in protecting his character, that he should remain unaffected by his interactions with unsavory people such as Lavan and Shechem.
The Ramban has a different approach. He translated the first word that Yaakov said, “im,” not as “if” (Hashem will be with me), rather im means, “when.” This means that Yaakov was certain that the promise of Hashem would come, but he didn’t want to be an unworthy recipient of Hashem’s benevolence and protection. He made a vow that all of the benefits he would get from Hashem’s protection and benevolence would be utilized to enhance his service to Hashem. He wasn’t going to take Hashem’s promise and simply go about his way. He understood that a great destiny awaited him and that was Hashem’s reason to give him this support and reassurance. He acknowledged it by rededicating himself and his works to glorifying Hashem in this world.
Our ancestors’ behaviors and reactions are recorded in these parshiyos to guide us and to help us make wise choices in our lives. The two ideas that are expressed in Yaakov’s vow following the dream are that one has to be strategic and realistic about the environment in which they are operating. Being out in the big world is different than being cloistered in an insulated environment and requires much more internal control and self-evaluation. Also, when Hashem blesses us with success of any kind, we need to reinvest that kindness into a renewed dedication to righteousness and good works. This applies to good health, intellect, material wealth, social standing and any other of the wonderful gifts we are blessed to have.