Parashat Vayetze tells of Jacob’s travels to Haran, his sojourn there, and his return to Canaan. It recounts Jacob’s first meeting with Rachel, his time working for Laban, living with Rachel and Leah, and the birth of all his children save Benjamin. Jacob has a dream in which he sees a ladder set upon the earth reaching up to the heavens. God appears at the top of the ladder and promises Jacob he will inherit the land of Canaan. He promises Jacob, saying: “Remember I am with you.” Jacob wakes up and offers the first recorded Jewish prayer in the Bible:
“If God remains with me; if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house – the Eternal will be my God …”
There is something troubling about Jacob’s prayer. It sounds more like Jacob is saying ‘let’s make a deal’ than the exalted theological language we would expect from one of our forefathers. More than that, his vow is strange because he seems to be asking for the very things that God has already promised him!
One possible answer is that while bargaining is bad theology, it is human nature. I suspect that there are few people who have not bargained with God at one time or another. In times of crisis and uncertainty, we are all prone to make promises and to place conditions on the things we want or need. Jacob certainly had reason to do so. He had deceived his father, cheated his brother, and now he was fleeing his home. It is not hard to understand why he would feel the need to bargain with God. But, I think Jacob is unfairly criticised for bargaining with God and for showing so little faith in God. I think the point of Jacob’s prayer is that he asks for nothing new, but simply reasserts the promises from God. In a sense he is drawing a course of action for himself by looking at his most basic needs- food and clothing – and asking God to watch over him. He expresses his hope that he will be given the opportunity to return home and be a better person. He sets himself life goals – to be a believing man, to serve God faithfully and to make himself worthy of calling God, “his God.”
What we learn is that prayer acknowledges our human needs and recognises that they can’t come from us alone, not about begging or even bargaining. They are a product of a partnership with God. Whenever we know what we truly need in life, we can strive to accomplish these goals together with God. Prayer transforms us from a passive receiver to an active player.
Source: R’ Greenspan: Prayer
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