Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaYetze

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.

Parashat Vayetze 5759/1998

"The Lord shall be my G-d"

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Department of Bible

The vow that Jacob made after the dream of the ladder (Genesis 28:20-22) can be divided into two parts: the conditional part, set forth in verses 20-21, through "if I return safe to my father's house," and Jacob's promise, set forth in verse 22.[1] Some commentators, ranging from Nahmanides to Benno Jacob, take exception to viewing the beginning part as a conditional "if," which would imply uncertainty regarding these conditions being fulfilled, and prefer to read the word im (lit: "if") which introduces the vow, as "when," specifying the time for the fulfillment of G-d's words or at least as the starting point for Jacob being able to keep his promises. Be that as it may, it remains unclear to which part of the vow the remark in the latter part of verse 21 belongs: "the Lord shall be my G-d." In accord with Biblical Hebrew syntax, this may be read as part of the condition--"and if the Lord shall be my G-d", or as part of Jacob's promises-- "then the Lord shall be my G-d."

The answer lies in understanding this formulation, uttered here by Jacob but previously said by G-d to Abraham regarding circumcision: "to be G-d to you and to your offspring to come" (Gen. 17:7, as well as v. 8). What was G-d promising Abraham with these words, and what was Jacob asking for, with the words "If the Lord shall be my G-d"? In our parasha, some commentators take this as referring to G-d's succor to human beings. For example, Rashbam and Saadiah Gaon view it as a request for special Divine providence; Rashi,[2] that Jacob's offspring will be entirely perfect and G-d's name invoked on them; Hizkuni, that G-d will be judge, avenging those who seek to harm Jacob.[3] All these commentators viewed the words at issue as concluding the list of conditions stipulated in the vow.

Other commentators, however, ascribe these words to the second part of the vow, to Jacob's undertaking. For example, Nahmanides interprets "the Lord shall be my G-d" as Jacob's promise to worship the Lord in the Land of Israel, upon his return there, according to the importance that Nahmanides attributes to the sanctity of the land.[4] Radak understands these words as pertaining to the spiritual aspect of exclusive devotion to worshipping the Lord.[5]

Is there any way to resolve this issue? In our opinion, it is best to understand the words, "The Lord shall be my G-d," in terms of the occurrences of this formulation in Scripture, where the Lord speaks of being G-d to a given person or people. Once we understand the phrase in context of all other such statements, we can return to the question of whether it is part of Jacob's conditions or part of Jacob's promise.

Aside from two instances involving the patriarchs -- Abraham, as mentioned above, and Jacob, in the present reading -- this formulations occurs repeatedly with respect to the people of Israel: ten times in the Torah, seven in Jeremiah's prophecies, six in Ezekiel's prophecies, and once in Zachariah. The first occurrence in the Torah is Exodus 6:7: "And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d," the fourth and fifth verbs comprising the promise of Redemption (after the famous "four languages [verbs] of Redemption" which the Rabbis pointed out and for which we drink four cups of wine at the Seder), and continuing with the sixth expression: "And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians." The other occurrences of this phrase 'to be your G-d' often go hand in hand with the parallel idea of 'Israel being G-d's people' (a total of 14 times), and with the motifs of the exodus from Egypt (ten times), the Lord's tabernacle and His dwelling amidst Israel (four times), the sanctity of Israel and keeping away from uncleanness (five times), inheriting the land of Israel (four times), the Lord's covenant with His people (four times), and in a handful of other contexts, such as observing the commandments, repentance, the Lord giving a new heart in the future, and the primacy of the House of David.

From the above contexts we may conclude that the notion of 'being their/your G-d', along with the parallel and complementary notion of Israel being the Lord's people, defines the special relationship between the Lord and Israel: G-d's love and special providence over the people and especially the land of Israel, and the demand that Israel be faithful to the Lord and serve Him. This reciprocity also includes the implied threat of disaster should the people of Israel be unfaithful in this mutual covenant. This is true throughout the generations of the Jewish people, as well as the generations of the patriarchs. Indeed, on the basis of this formulation "to be your G-d" the Lord is called G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, just as He is later called G-d of Israel.

Hence, it appears that the words "the Lord shall be my G-d" in Jacob's vow, which we read in this week's portion, are neither a condition nor a promise but rather the connecting link between the beginning and concluding parts of the vow: if the Lord keeps His promises to Jacob, made in the dream of the ladder, then it will be clear to Jacob that this was not an empty dream, and Jacob will know that the Lord indeed chose him to carry on the destiny of the house of Abraham, whose G-d He is. If the Lord shows Himself to be Jacob's G-d, Jacob is obliged to be "his people" and therefore undertakes to worship the Lord in the land of Israel, by building an altar, an abode for G-d, and setting aside a tithe for Him.

[1] All the vows in biblical narrative (save for those in the law, psalms and wisdom literature), are comprised of a conditional "if" and a promise "then." Cf. Numbers 21:2; Judges 11:30; I Samuel 1:11; II Samuel 15:8.

[2] According to Sifre on Deuteronomy, 31, pp. 51-52 in the Finkelstein-Horowitz edition.

[3] If this is how we understand Hizkuni, and not as Sforno explains later on.

[4] According to the special importance that Nahmanides attributes to the Land of Israel in his commentary and halakhic works. Especially cf. his commentary on Leviticus 18:25. Also cf. H. Rivlin, Ma'alat ha-Aretz, Jerusalem 1981.

[5] Also note Sforno, who views 212 as an independent intermediate link, saying that the Lord will be my judge (Elohim) as to whether or not I have kept my vow. A somewhat surprising explanation is given by Abarbanel: if the first part of the vow (20-21) comes to pass regarding Jacob, then he will be sure that the latter part (212-22) will be kept regarding his children. According to this interpretation, however, it is not clear where the vow is.