Struggling With Monotheism

Jacob and his family's evolving relationship with God illustrates the complex struggle with faith and monotheism.

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Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

The weekly Torah portion Vayishlah is composed of many different subjects that are unequal in importance or length. The Torah portion can be summarized in eight “subheadings:”

1. Jacob’s journey with his family from Laban’s house and the meeting with his brother Esau on the way

2. His struggle with a mysterious person (angel?) who blesses him

3. The rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and Jacob’s sons’ revenge on all the men of the city where the rape occurred

4.Jacob’s building of an altar in Bet El

5. Rachel’s death while giving birth to Benjamin

6. Reuben’s sin in lying with his father’s concubine

7. The death of Isaac

8. The listing of Esau’s children and the kings of Edom

My focus is on the building of the altar at Bet El, as described in Genesis 35:1: “And God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bet El, and dwell there; and make there an altar to God, Who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.’”

A Reminder

The purpose of this verse is to remind us of the dream Jacob had had after fleeing his brother, about the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, and how he’d vowed to build an altar at the place where he’d dreamt this revelatory dream.

In Genesis 28:16-19, we read that Jacob woke up from his slumber and exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not! …And he called the name of that place Bet El, but the name of that city was called Luz at first.” Jacob had vowed to build a monument and a House of God in that place if God would protect him on his journey.

Now, twenty years later, Jacob leaves his father-in-law’s home with a large family (four wives, eleven sons and one daughter). God reminds him that he must go to Bet El, to dwell there and to build an altar, as he had previously vowed to do. Jacob turns to his family and tells them that they must remove the foreign gods that are among them, to purify themselves and to change their garments, and to join him on his journey to Bet El.

What Can We Learn From Bet El?

After his family gives Jacob all of their foreign gods which they carry with them as well as their jewelry he buries all the implements of idol worship under an oak tree in Shekhem. Then, everyone travels to Luz, which is Bet El, in order to build the altar there.

This story raises a number of difficult questions regarding belief in God and monotheism: When waking up from his dream when he first set foot in Bet El, how was it possible that Jacob did not know that God was in this place? Didn’t he realize that God is found in all places?

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Osnat Elnatan

Osnat Elnatan is the director of the non-profit organization Kehilla, a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agency that promotes Jewish pluralism and community development in the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh. A member of the urban kibbutz Tammuz, she also teaches in the Bet Shemesh Community Bet Midrash (house of Jewish study).