Then Jacob took a vow, saying, "If(eem) God will be with me, and God will guard me on this way that I am going; and God will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; andI will return in peace to my father's house, then it will be that (v'hayah) the Lord will be a God to me. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall surely tithe it to You.
The humorous, silly, childlike side of my personality imagines a conversation between God and Jacob:
"Nu, Jacob, I've just given you a place to lie down safely in the wilderness, shown you a magical dream, and reminded you of My Everlasting Presence. What will you give to Me in return?"
And Jacob shakes his head from side-to-side, cups his chin perplexedly between his thumb and the knuckle of his index finger and says, "You know, oh Supposedly Mighty and Seemingly All-Powerful Most Godly God, I'm just not sure yet. If you do this for me and if you do that for me, then I'll know that You really are who You say You are."
Jacob, in the early stages of his journey away from home, is asking a series of "what-if," "if-then," "would-I", "will it be" questions. Although he sleeps with a rock under his head, Jacob is anything but grounded, and he does not yet find himself in a place of self-acceptance. He is fighting the reality of his life, battling with the confounding reality of God, confronting his own demons, and dare we say, "He is wrestling with beings both human and Divine." Jacob is a character in a state of tension.
Looking elsewhere, this is not the only place where we find an "if-then," "what-if" construct within the Torah. Towards the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph's brothers see that their father Jacob is dead and they say, "Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him." The Hebrew for perhaps in this verse is lu. Rashi, of 11th century France reads lu as sheh-ma, meaning "perhaps." Rashi explains:
The word "lu" separates into many meanings. There is "lu" which functions as an expression of a wish and means "if only."...And there is a usage of "lu" which functions as an expression of "eem" (if) or "oo-lai" (maybe)....And there is a usage of "lu" which functions as an expression of "perhaps."...There is no other word example of this in Scripture.
Given Rashi's explanation, maybe the verse could be read as a question, with the brothers asking, "What if Joseph will nurse hatred against us and what if he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him?" There is deep fear and lasting regret here, not to mention concern about potential retribution going forward. Yet the strongest response to lu and what if is Joseph's admittance that he is not harboring a grudge, and accepting that God intended the harm that he suffered for good. That level of admittance and acceptance is powerful.
In both Jacob's story, and Joseph's interaction with his brothers, we see how challenging the notion of self-acceptance can be -- both in regards to what we live with in ourselves, and in regards to the truths that others present (and even sometimes impose) upon us. Joseph, in this scene, and over significant time, has come to accept what the brothers have done to him. They threw him in a pit. They sent him into slavery. And Joseph took those broken experiences and came to shape a life for himself. Nothing left. No grudge. Nothing harbored unnecessarily. The depth of something awful happened and Joseph found a way to move on. That's strength.
We hold onto hurts and bear grudges, remaining bitter and remembering painful interactions and terrible circumstances for a long time, even, in some cases, for forever. Such situations can have an adverse effect on our body, our health. Sometimes what we want is to heal our wounds with the presence of another person. Sometimes, the most important thing to find is healing and acceptance within ourselves. For not all questions of "what-if," "would-I," "if-then," "perhaps," eem or lu are ever completely answered or ever v'hayah, come to be. All we can do is come to cope with what is traumatic and challenging in our lives and in our communities. There are some things that happen to us over which we have no control, and only we can choose how we will respond to them.
So to Jacob we ask, "What if God doesn't bring you back to the land where you are now? Then what?" I guess you'll just have to accept what comes and build from what you still have...and maybe you'll question, and maybe you'll doubt, and maybe you'll wonder, and maybe some things in your life will remain forever unresolved, and maybe some people won't like you, and maybe, as my Mom (whose 13th yahrzeit fell yesterday) taught me over and over, "You'll learn more from life from your failures than you will from anything at which you succeed."
What if Jacob were to say:
I dreamed a magical dream (in days gone by...).
I connived my way into receiving my brother's birthright and blessing.
I ran away from home.
Esau may be after me.
And what choice do I have God, but to own what has happened, to let it be, and to move forward?
And for that matter, what choice do any of us have?
Borrowing a term from the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rashi's Commentary to Genesis 50:15, Sapirstein Edition, pp. 566-7.
Just had to throw that in...