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Two Minutes of Torah: Vayeitze - The Religious If

The joke is told about the New York man driving around desperately seeking a parking place.  He can’t find one, and so in desperation, he says, "Oh God I pray that you give me a parking space, If you give me a parking space then I promise to go to synagogue every Shabbat, I promise to give more money to tzedakah and I promise to be more observant of mitzvot."  At that moment in front of him a parking space opens up and the man says "Oh never mind God I found one." 

In our lives we often engage with this “If”.  If this happens, then I will do such and such.  We set up the negotiation, the exchange between ourselves and God or between ourselves and the fates of the universe, imagining that that gives us some element of control.

In this week’s Torah Portion, we get a very strange parallel moment of “If”.  

Jacob, having left Be'ersheva on his way to Haran, has an amazing dream, he dreams that he’s by a stairway leading up to heaven where he sees angels going up and coming down. Then God speaks to Jacob and introduces Godself as the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, informing Jacob of the fact that the land on which he is sleeping is holy ground; promising Jacob that God will be with his descendants, that they will receive the land upon which he is sleeping as an inheritance; essentially entering Jacob into the patriarchal promise.  

In the morning when Jacob awakes he is in no doubt about the significance of the dream and the awesomeness of  the place. And he sets up a pillar as a dedication to God, naming the place Beth El.  However, Jacob then continues by saying "If, God remains with me, If God protects me on the journey that I’m taking and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear and If I return safely to my father’s house, then Adonai shall be God and this stone which I establish as a pillar shall be God’s abode."  

After all that Jacob has just seen in that dream, after all of the promises which God gave to Jacob, Jacob feels the need to make a vow beginning with “If”.  There is the “If” of uncertainty, the “If” of doubt, and possibly even the “If” of fear as to what lies ahead for Jacob.  And so in trying to regain some control even in this moment after all that he has seen, Jacob says “If”. 

We often use the word “If” without all the signs and wonders presented to Jacob.  And we do it for similar reasons, because we seek to regain that sense of control.  But when we use the religious “If” we lose sight of the fact that so much of our life is based, not around certainty and control , but is instead based around faith.  It is hard to give up control and put our faith in God, but if we can do it, our lives would be so much richer.

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