In this week’s Torah reading, we come across Jacob at a very difficult and precarious point in his life. He has been forced to flee his family and homeland after the dress-up-as-Esau charade where he doubled up on his birthright and took Esau’s blessings as well. Esau was not happy to say the least and mother Rebecca tells Jacob he needs to get out of Dodge lest his brother exact revenge. He takes off without much of anything to his name. Penniless and homeless.
On the way to Rebecca’s relatives, he lays down to sleep and God comes to him in a mysterious dream of a ladder planted in the ground whose top reaches the heavens. In this vision God makes all sort of wonderful promises to him, many of them quite similar to the promises God previously made to Avraham and Isaac. He will inherit the land of Canaan. His offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth and will spread out globally in all directions. All the nations of the earth will be blessed through him.
God then gives him a number of personal reassurances. God will be with him in his travels, He will guard him wherever Jacob goes and finally God will return him to his home and not abandon him until He fulfills everything promised. Nice.
Jacob wakes up from this dream/prophecy sequence and his reaction is a bit of a curious one. The Torah tells us, “Jacob then made a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me and guard me on the way in which I journey and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I return to my father’s house in peace, and the Lord will be a God to me – then this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall become a house of God and whatever You (God) give me I will forever tithe to You.’”
There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between God’s promises to Jacob and his reaction to those promises. Jacob’s response is a bit muted given what God has just prophesied to him. God is assuring him a fantastic future of raising a powerful nation, of becoming someone who will change the course of mankind and continue the great legacy of his father and grandfather. God further reassures him that no personal harm will come to him in his journey.
But in Jacob’s reaction and his vow, he totally ignores the assurances of grandeur. Even with respect to the personal pledges by God, Jacob keeps it very simple. All he wants is some bread to eat, some clothes on his back and to be able to return home safely. “Do that for me, God and I will be content and happy and here’s what I will do on my end: I will humbly appoint this place as a holy one for worship to You and also I’ll make sure I take off 10% of my earning to give to charity.”
In trying to understand this I couldn’t help but think of my father, a Holocaust survivor whose yahrtzeit was this past week. When he passed away eight years ago at the age of 90, he had amassed quite a nice portfolio of blessings in his life. He created a beautiful family of four boys with my mother over their 62 years of marriage, 14 grandchildren (and now 7 great-grandchildren, and a good likelihood of many more in the future, please God), a successful business, homes in Toronto and Miami, many friends and many other blessings along the way. But I’m quite certain that during those terrible years during the war all he wanted was a little bread to eat, some clothes on his back and to just to be able to return home, or barring that, to have a home. I’m sure that his wish and his prayer was not unlike that of Jacob’s.
Righteous people don’t pray for excess. They pray for the basics. God’s promises notwithstanding, they don’t see themselves as deserving of much beyond what is needed in the here-and-now on a day-to-day basis. That God made all those lofty predictions to Jacob didn’t mean much to him at the time. All he wants was some food and clothes, a home life and a connection to God.
But here is the kicker: It’s these type of people, the Jacobs and the Irving Nightingales, who usually get way more than the basics. The Talmud says, “Those who run after Honour, Honour eludes them. But those who run from Honour, Honour catches up to them.” People who are humble, work hard, do what is right, are honest and treat everyone with respect – those people only look for the simple things in life. But God has a way of giving them much more than that. They seek simplicity but God grants them riches far beyond that which they could ever imagine or dream. And indeed so often I heard my father say exactly that about his life in his later years. To him, it was all a dream.
There is nothing wrong with having dreams of grandeur, but if you stick to the simple script, God often has a way of granting you blessings beyond anything you could have ever dreamed of. Those blessings don’t happen all at once. They arrive like a ladder, and they take you – step by step – from the lowest place on earth until, before you know it, you find yourself up in the heavens, with blessings beyond your wildest dreams.
Dream until the morning light
I’m waiting for the sun
to come up
I can’t sleep
with your warm ways
-Fleetwood Mac/Christine McVie