A 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 it gives us some elements 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 this amazing dream of a stairway leading up to heaven where he sees angels going up and coming down. Then God speaks to Jacob informing him that He (God) will be with his descendants, and that they will receive the land upon which he is sleeping as an inheritance. In the morning when Jacob awakes he has no doubt about the significance of the dream.
However, Jacob is then quoted 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. 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.
Unfortunately, our lives are not arranged around certainty and control, and from time to time we need to let things happen as they happen. It was a long learning process for Jacob to accept that most things are out of his control, too. He struggled with God for the rest of his life, but he also understood that this is the real sense of a partnership – the partnership with God.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell