Parshat Vayetze: Bidding farewell to idol-worship; this time, for good

Bidding farewell to idol-worship; this time, for good

Prayer is, above all else, an intimate encounter between a person and God. The prayer’s content includes requests and supplications from God, but the essence of the prayer is embodied, first and foremost, by the act of turning to Hashem. Content comes second.

Rabbi Chaim Navon, senior faculty of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Hadas Program – The Claudia Cohen Torah/Army Program

The protagonists of the Bible, who yearn to see their wishes fulfilled, add another tier to their spiritual work: they address Hashem in prayer, entreating Him to improve their fate. Parshat Vayetzeh begins with Jacob’s prayer and vow. He turns to Hashem and exclaims: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear…” (Genesis 28:20). When Rachel addresses Jacob, saying to him: “Give me children…” (ibid., 30:1), our sages explain that she entreated Jacob to pray to Hashem on her behalf. Anywhere our forefathers were, prayer was never far away.

Anself of Canterbury, a clergyman and philosopher who lived in the 11th century, managed to devise the most sophisticated philosophical proof of the existence of God. His proof, which came to be known as the “ontological proof”, has captured the attention of philosophers until today. Dr. Yuval Steinitz, before he became a politician, even wrote a book about it.  Before formulating the ontological proof, Anslem prayed to God for three days. He cried and pleaded to God to allow him to find proof of His existence. Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, mocked Anselm. “Does a groom embracing his bride need proof of her existence?”, he asked. By that same token, does someone praying to his God need proof of God’s existence?

Prayer is, above all else, an intimate encounter between a person and God. The prayer’s content includes requests and supplications from God, but the essence of the prayer is embodied, first and foremost, by the act of turning to Hashem. Content comes second. Our sages consistently refer to those engaged in prayer as individuals standing before God. Maimonides translated this into psychological guidance to the praying individual: “…while the heart should be uplifted as if one were in heaven” (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Prayer”, 5:4).

Compared our forefathers, who were privy to the secrets of redeeming prayer, their cousins from Haran were markedly different.  When Lavan admits to Jacob that he received the blessings of property thanks to Jacob, he uses these words: “I have learned by divination that Hashem has blessed me on your account.” This verse exposes Lavan’s bizarre spiritual world. He learned from “divination”, that is, he resorted to witchcraft and sorcery to learn that Hashem blessed him on Jacob’s account. A modern-day version would be that someone realized that this week, Hashem would bless them financially by reading their horoscope. Before scoffing at Lavan, we had best examine our newspapers. Which subjects get more attention, the weekly parsha, or idle chit-chat about celebrities?

Rachel stole her father’s idols (ibid 31:19), and our sages explain that she did so to help wean him off of his addiction to cheap parlor tricks. However, this doesn’t have the desired effect on Lavan. He pursues Jacob, exclaiming, “Why did you steal my gods?!” (ibid., 30), without even noticing the inherent contradiction in what he was saying. What kind of a god could be stolen?

At the end of the parsha, the two branches of the family go their separate ways for the last time. They place a pile of rocks between them, demarcating the territory belonging to each branch. They speak different languages – Jacob speaks Hebrew, while Lavan speaks Aramaic. Their spiritual domains are also different: we have “the gods of Abraham” versus “the gods of Nahor” (ibid., 53). The servants of Hashem bid their last farewell to the idol-worshippers.

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