Jacob has an interesting relationship with prayer. His prayer in last week’s parasha, Vayeitzei, is, according to some scholars, actually the first recorded prayer in the Torah. (This is clearly debatable, as there are at least two earlier examples cited by scholars. The first, Abraham’s argument with G”d about the destruction of S’dom and Gomorrah is more of a conversation. The second is the prayer of the nameless servant of Isaac (Eliezer of Damascus) in Genesis 24:10-12. I’d say this is a fairly standard prayer in format, and probably qualifies as the first true prayer text in the Torah. Some scholars exclude because it comes from a minor character, and this minor character is uttering a prayer as much for his master’s sake as his own.)
Jacob’s prayer in Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:20-22 is one I have written about before. It’s a conditional prayer: Or is it really a prayer at all?
וַיִּדַּר יַֽעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם־יִֽהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִי לֶחֶם לֶֽאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ: כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל־בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה יְהוָֹה לִי לֵֽאלֹהִֽים
If G”d remains with me,if He (sic) 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-the L”rd hall be my G”d.”
That’s not a prayer, it’s a vow. So I remain uncertain why some scholars choose to cite it. I would choose to cite the nameless servant of Isaac’s prayer as the first true prayer in the Torah. For me, Jacob’s first prayer comes at the beginning of this parasha, Vayishlach.
Jacob learns from the messengers he sent out that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Concerned, Jacob divides his people into two camps, and prays to G”d:
וַיֹּאמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵֽאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק יְהֹוָה הָֽאֹמֵר אֵלַי שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּֽךְ: קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַֽחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל־הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַֽחֲנֽוֹת: הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּֽי־יָרֵא אָֽנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִֽים: וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת־זַֽרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם אֲשֶׁר לֹֽא־יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹֽב
The Jacob said, “O G”d of my Father Abraham and G”d of my father Isaac, O L”rd, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you”! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.”
This one, at least, isn’t conditional. Interestingly enough, it was after G”d G”d spoke to him in a dream,and Jacob recognized that “G”d was in this place and I, I did not know it” that Jacob then still offered his conditional promise. What has transpired between then and the time before his confrontation with Esau that gives Jacob the confidence to pray to G”d without condition? Well, let’s think about that: two wives, plenty of children, and prosperity. Though he had his share of hardships, Jacob is perhaps now convinced that G”d will keep the promises made, and is now comfortable actually asking G”d for protection and assistance. This, of course, also raises the question of why Jacob would then feel the need to pray for G”d’s protection. If Jacob were convinced that G”d would keep the promises made to him, why would he feel the need to ask? Well, the answer is somewhat obvious. Who has perfect faith? Jacob was surely very frightened. When we’re hungry, afraid, insecure, lost, under stress m- these are the times when we are most likely to turn to G”d for assistance. (Perhaps it is from this and other experiences that G”d realizes that human beings will need to be reminded to thank G”d when things are going fine – as exemplified in the fact that we are called upon in the Torah not to say a blessing before we eat, but after.) One wonders if, through all the years living with Laban, and prospering, if Jacob once offered a prayer of thanks to G”d. (The prophets and later writings are replete with lots of prayers of thanks in addition to those of petition and praise, the Torah less so. Assuming for the sake of argument, that the Torah has been edited and redacted, why would the redactors and editors not find ways to emphasize the need for prayers of thanks and gratitude? Oh wait, there’s that sacrificial system. Worship in those days was less about prayer and more about slaughtering animals, roasting grain, offering fruits. Deeds of physical sacrifice, and not words, became the preferred mode of recognizing G”d. Yet, except for the sheep offered in place of Isaac, we see more stones set up by our forefathers to recognize G”d than we see animals sacrificed.
I also want to give a brief nod, once again, to the formulation at the beginning : G”d of my father Abraham, G”d of my father Isaac.” Much has been written over the years as to why we so often see this type of formulation, instead of a simple “G”d of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.” I won’t discourse on it now, but you’ll find it in some of my other musings, and in the writings of many sages and commentators, and I commend it to you as something to study.
This prayer is a bit cheeky, when you think about it. Jacob is reminding G”d of the promises made. So Jacob hasn’t matured as fully as we might think since his conditional vow back in chapter 28. At least he has learned to suck up a little bit, but he hasn’t yet figured out the typical sandwich method of prayer. (Note to self: that would be an interesting bit of study. Where is the first example of a sandwich prayer in our sacred texts? Feel free, dear reader to take that upon yourself, and let me know what you find!) Well, his prayer is a sandwich, but he’s got the reminding G”d of the promises as the two slices of bread, with the thanks (well, more an ”I am not worthy” than a true thanks) inside.Eventually we humans figure out that putting the praise and thanks on the outside of the sandwich appears to be the better formulation for prayer.
Adding to the “cheek” of the prayer is how Jacob throws in the bit about “dealing bountifully.” G”d made no such promise to Jacob when G”d instructed him to leave Laban and return home. G”d only promised to “be with” Jacob. G”d’s promises to Abraham and Isaac weren’t so much about prosperity either, they were about population enhancement (though I suppose “great nation” could reasonably assumed to also mean prosperous.)
Note that Jacob makes no offering with this prayer. Just his words. So the question I am left with here is whether there was really any spiritual growth of Jacob’s part between his conditional vow in Vayeitzei, and this prayer in a time of fear in Vayishlach. The formulations are different, and one is clearly more vow than prayer, but do they truly evidence a change in Jacob? True, this second “prayer” is not conditional – at least not on the surface. However, the very fact that Jacob makes sure to remind G”d of the promises made (and in fact inflates the promise) still reveals an element of doubt. It is, in a way, a foreshadowing of how the Israelites act as they wander the wilderness. They’ve seen the miracle of freedom, the journey through the sea of reeds, the giving of the Torah, and still they doubt.Forty years were spent winnowing out those doubters.
Are we any different today? We have still failed to learn to look for G”d not in the great miracles, but in the quotidian things, in the “kol d’mamah daka,” the “still small voice.”
Another question pops into my mind. Why didn’t G”d answer Jacob’s prayer, and reassure him? Or is that what the subsequent wrestling match is all about? Was that the answer to Jacob’s prayer? If so, what was that answer – that G”d would protect Jacob, that Jacob himself was fully capable of protecting himself, that Jacob had nothing to fear from his brother Esau, that whatever happens in the meeting with Esau, it is G”d’s will? Even the hindsight of knowing how things turned out doesn’t clear up that mysterious story in verses 32:25-30. Maybe that incident is unrelated? Seems rather unlikely, but with Torah, who knows?
Jacob and Esau were reunited, then parted again. They came together one last time to bury their father Isaac.Nice button on the story, worthy of the best story writing. Lots unspoken about what happened in the intervening years for Esau. Jacobs goes on to show the person he really is (and, upon further analysis, always was) in how he reacts to the rape of his daughter, and how his sons take extreme and vengeful justice into their own hands. He cares, it seems, only for his reputation. Self-centered as always. Eliezer, at least, offered a prayer that he, Eliezer would be successful in his mission to find a wife for his master Isaac.Jacob’s prayers always seem so self-centered by comparison.
So, as in the title of this musing, something to consider. When “my prayer” is mostly about myself, when it is “me prayer” we may be emulating our ancestor Jacob, but have we truly learned the lessons Torah wants to teach us from its portrayal of our ancestors?
©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Vayishlakh 5775 - No One's In The Kitchen With Dinah (or Eric or Michael)
Vayishlakh 5774 - Biblical Schadenfreude
Vayishlakh 5773 - That Other Devorah's Tale
Vayishlakh 5772 - One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!