Jacob's Covenant with God

Jacob's covenant with God teaches us that our relationships with God must not be conditional, but rather should be built on trust.

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A covenant, like any contract, has two sides, and both parties must meet their obligations to the contract. So when Jacob, alone in the desert, has his first theophany, his first personal encounter with God, it serves to reestablish the covenant with this new generation.

God offers the standard terms: to care for Jacob, to grant him many descendants, and give him the promised land as a home. Jacob agrees to those terms, responding first by restating, in his own words, God's part of the deal, and then agreeing to accept God's sovereignty. Viewed this way, Jacob's response is only conditional in the way any contract or agreement is conditional. Many classic commentators read the passage in this way, really accepting the simple reading of the text.

But not all of our tradition is comfortable with Jacob putting conditions on God. After all, God has already vowed to do off these things for Jacob. So by stating 'im--"IF you do these things for me, THEN...," could Jacob possibly be doubting God?

The midrash, looking at the words very closely, prefers to read 'im as a form of promise - "if God does all of these things for me, then I will be protected from temptation and sin, and will have no problem being faithful to God." (Paraphrase from Bereshit Rabbah 70:4).

Jacob's vow is an exclamation of joy over God's protection. He does not doubt that God will keep the covenant; he doubts whether he himself will be able to uphold his commitment. With God's support, it should not be difficult.

Ramban (Moses Ben Nahmanides) reads it a little differently as well. He translates 'im not as "if" but as "when". When all these conditions are met, there can be no doubt that the Eternal is God. And therefore the passage is not conditional, but rather a vow that, upon his return to his home, the fulfillment of God's promise, then Jacob will set up a monument for the worship of God.

More than anything, our patriarchs and matriarchs stand as examples of how we can establish an individual relationship with God. For each of them, their relationship with God was formally established and affirmed at just the right point in their lives, when they were ready. For each, their relationship was unique, and for each, their relationship evolved as they grew and changed.

But, like any healthy positive relationship, a relationship with God must be built on trust. It can't be conditional. Lack of faith in the other always results in dire consequences. With God, it is we who are the weak ones. It is we who are getting the better end of the deal. If God is willing to enter into a covenantal relationship with us, and trust us, despite all of our shortcomings, how much more so should we trust God?

Dvar Aher

"...and the (seven years) seemed to him only a few days, because of the love he had for her." (Genesis 29:20)

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.