Parshat Vayetzey: The Stairway To Heaven

“   The Death of Socrates   ” by Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels)

The Death of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels)


We’re skeptical people by nature. Especially of other people. We are continually prodding the accountability of others in a real way. We need proof of their character. Evidence of their actions. We need to be sure that they're reliable: "Are you positive you've got this? Are you sure you're going to be able to come through for me? Are you confident you can take care of this?" We regularly doubt the abilities of others. Sometimes even in the face of irrefutable evidence. As Edgar Allan Poe’s hyperbolic proverb goes: “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” Be suspicious. Remain doubtful. After all, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

In Parshat Vayetzey, we see can observe the same cautiousness in Jacob. Jacob, escaping from his brother Esau, obeys his father and mother and flees towards Paddan-aram. Weary from the journey, Jacob falls asleep underneath a rock (dreaming of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”). God then appears to Jacob as he watches with amazement angles going up and down this stairway/ladder. Further, God awards Jacob the promise of a lifetime:

“Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 

One might think that should be enough. But it's not. Because upon Jacob’s awakening, astonished by the magnificent wonders of God and "God's abode," the following happens:

“Jacob then made a vow, saying, '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, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God” [1]

Wait just one minute....didn't we just read that God said to Jacob: "Remember, I am with you…I will not leave you.” It could be said that a promise from God would suffice (it’s a theological cashier’s check for heaven’s sake). That Jacob’s relationship with God wouldn’t be so conditional – so quid pro quo. Albeit the wording may convey a transactional conclusion, according to the Radak on Genesis 28:20, the vow wasn’t so much for God as it was for Jacob:

“The vow Yaakov made at this point was a conditional one. The conditional nature did not mean that Yaakov doubted the promise G’d had made to him and G’d’s ability to fulfill it; rather he was afraid that just as all of G’d’s promises presume that the recipient remains worthy of them, so Yaakov was also afraid that some errors he might commit in the future, sinful conduct, would invalidate G’d promises. This is the only reason that he prefaced the vow with the words: ‘if G’d will be with me, etc.’ He was afraid that if he would commit a sin or sins he might never see his father’s house again so that he would be unable to fulfill the vow he was about to make.”

What Radak seems to be getting at is not Jacob’s mistrust of God, but with himself. Because, how often do we enter relationships with the presumption that the other party will surely be the one to slip up. That we will invariably hold up our end of the bargain. But how often is that actually true? In many ways, we are taught to be wary concerning the liability of others, but Rabbi Hillel prods us to take into account our own imperfect nature: “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” [2]. Our rabbis teach:

“This is learned out to be both about piety and about faith - that even though you have been fitted with a faithful and proper spirit, you should not be [overly] righteous in your (own) eyes.” [3]

In a more colloquial sense: Before turning your camera to the world, try taking a selfie first. Try flipping your perspective inward. Set expectations for how you want to behave in the world, and let God take care of the rest. Worry less about the promises of God, and more about the promises you’ve made to yourself. Like Jacob, remember to hold up your end of the bargain. Before testing the world, test yourself. As Socrates says: “Know thyself.” Be the fly on your own wall. Because an unexamined life is not worth living.

The most mature human insight comes from one’s introspection rather than from exterior research.
— Hugh Downs

[1] Genesis 28:15; 20-21
[2] Pirkei Avot 2:4”
[3] Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avot 2:4:7

Aaron Sataloff