Jacob’s Oath


Why are we here?

All possible answers to this question fall into two general categories: a) For ourselves (e.g., to enjoy life, realize our potential, achieve transcendence); b) To serve something greater than ourselves (society, history, G-d).

What makes this question so difficult to address is that we sense both “a” and “b” to be true. On the one hand, we are strongly driven to better ourselves, to “get the most” out of every experience and opportunity. We also sense that this is not a shallow “selfishness” but something very deep and true in our souls—something implanted in us by our Creator as intrinsic to our identity and purpose. On the other hand, we are equally aware that we are part of something greater than ourselves—that if our existence has meaning, it is only because it serves a reality beyond its own finite and subjective being.

Indeed, we find both sensibilities expressed by the Torah and in the words of our sages. On the one hand, the Torah repeatedly stresses that G-d’s program for life is for the good of man, both materially and spiritually.[1] “The mitzvot were given only to refine humanity,” says the Midrash.[2] The Talmud even goes so far as to state: “Every man is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for my sake.’”[3] Thus Chassidic teaching describes the saga of the soul as a “descent for the purpose of ascent”—the soul’s entry into the physical state entails a diminution of its spiritual faculties and sensitivities, but the purpose of this is that it be elevated by the challenges and achievements of earthly life.[4]

On the other hand, the highest praise that the Torah has for Moses, “the most perfect human being,”[5] is that he was a “servant of G-d.”[6] Our sages repeatedly exhort us to strive for altruism in our lives, so that everything we do is permeated with the recognition that “I was not created but to serve my Creator.”[7]

To understand the interplay between these two apparently disparate aspirations and the respective places they hold in the purpose of our lives, we must first examine a juncture in the life of Jacob, father of the people of Israel.

Archetypal Journey

“Everything,” say our sages, “that happened to the Patriarchs (the progenitors of the Jewish nation: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates in its account of their journeys, their digging of wells and the other events [of their lives]…. These all come to instruct the future: when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.”[8] More than “role models” or “sources of inspiration,” the lives of our forefathers are all-inclusive blueprints that map every fork and turn in the road of our lives, addressing every dilemma and paradox that may confront us.

In the 28th chapter of Genesis, the Torah recounts Jacob’s departure from the Holy Land—where he had spent the first half of his life immersed in “the tents of learning”[9]—and his journey to Charan. In Charan, Jacob worked for twenty years in the employ of his conniving uncle, Laban, in the midst of a corrupt and debased society. [10] Throughout it all, Jacob remained true to G-d and man, serving Laban honestly, even as the latter repeatedly swindled him,[11] scrupulously observing all 613 commandments of the Torah[12] and retaining all that he had learned in his years of study.[13] He even prospered materially, amassing considerable wealth.[14] In Charan, Jacob also married and fathered eleven of the twelve sons who were to yield the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to earth.[15] The soul, too, leaves a spiritual idyll behind—an existence steeped in divine awareness and knowledge—to struggle in the employ of a “Laban” in a “Charan” environment. For the material state is a nefarious deceiver, accentuating the corporeal and obscuring the G-dly, confusing the soul’s priorities and perpetually threatening its virtue. But every soul is empowered, as a child of Jacob, to make this a “descent for the purpose of ascent”: to emerge from the Charan of material earth with its integrity intact and its memory true. Indeed, not only are its spiritual powers galvanized by the challenge, it also gains “wealth,” having learned to exploit the forces and resources of the physical world to further its spiritual ends. Most significantly, in its spiritual state the soul is perfect but childless; only as a physical being on physical earth can it fulfill the divine mitzvot, which are the soul’s progeny and its link to the infinite and the eternal.[16]

The Oath

On his way to Charan, Jacob camped for the night on Mount Moriah where he had his famous dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Upon waking, “Jacob took the stone (on which he had slept) and raised it as a monument.”[17] He then made an oath, which the Torah relates in the following three verses (Genesis 28:20-22):

       If G-d will be with me, and safeguard me on this road that I am traveling, and He will provide me with bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I will return in peace to my father’s house, and G-d will be my G-d; and this stone, which I have erected as a monument, shall be a house of G-d…

The syntactical construction of Jacob’s oath, as written in the Torah, raises several questions.  The oath consists of two parts: a) the preconditions for its fulfillment (“if G-d will be with me,” “provide me bread to eat and clothes to wear,” etc.) b) What Jacob is promising to do (e.g., “this stone… shall be a house of G-d”). What is not clear is where the former ends and the latter begins. The first of the three verses is obviously part of the conditions—things that G-d will do for Jacob to enable him to fulfill his vow. The same applies to the first part of the second verse—and I will return in peace to my father’s house.” The third verse speaks of what Jacob will do for G-d. But what about the second part of the second verse, “and G-d will be my G-d”? Is this part of the conditions for the vow’s fulfillment, or is it part of the vow itself?

Indeed, two of the greatest biblical commentators, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), debate this very point. According to Rashi, the first two verses are the conditions of Jacob’s vow, while the third verse is its fulfillment: in order for Jacob to make the stone a “house of G-d,” he requires to experience the Almighty as “his G-d.” Nachmanides, however, sees the words “and G-d will be my G-d” as part of the promise itself, not as a “condition”—Jacob is saying that if G-d will provide him with protection, food, clothes and a peaceful return, he will make G-d his G-d and the stone an abode for the Divine presence.

What is the deeper significance of these two interpretations? And why does the Torah recount Jacob’s oath in a way that allows for variant readings?

Home of Stone

Our sages describe the purpose of creation as “G-d’s desire for a dwelling in the lowly realms.”[18] G-d desired that there be a realm that is “lowly”—a reality inhospitable to spirituality and G-dliness—and that this alien place be made into a “dwelling” for Him, an environment receptive and subservient to His goodness and truth.

This “lowly realm” is our physical world, “of which none is lower in the sense that it obscures the light of G-d … to the extent that it contains forces which actually oppose G-d with the claim that “I am the ultimate.’”[19] The physical  world is the greatest concealment of the divine truth. A spiritual entity (e.g., an idea or feeling) exists to express something; a physical entity merely exists. The spiritual conveys that “there is something greater than myself, which I serve”; the physical proclaims “I am”— contesting the truth that G-d is the ultimate and exclusive reality. But when man utilizes the resources and forces of the physical world to serve G-d, he sanctifies the material so that it now serves, rather than obscures, the divine truth. Instead of “I exist,” it now expresses “I exist to serve my Creator”; instead of “I am the ultimate,” it now proclaims, “I, for myself, am nothing; my sole function and significance is that I am an instrument of G-dliness.”

This is the meaning of Jacob’s oath to make “this stone … a house of G-d.” Jacob is pledging himself to man’s mission in life: to fulfill the divine purpose for creation by making the material world a “dwelling for G-d.” He is promising to make “the stone”—the brute substantiality of the physical world—into a divine abode.

To achieve this, Jacob requires several things from G-d: protection from harm, food to eat, clothes to wear, a peaceful return to his father’s home. He is not, G-d forbid, negotiating for payment in return for services rendered; rather, his “conditions” are literally that: the conditions, both material and spiritual, that enable a soul to subsist in a physical body and achieve its aim of making the world a home for G-d.[20] On the material level, there are the basic needs (food, clothing, security, etc.) that are required to keep body and soul together. On the spiritual level, Jacob is also asking for the divine gifts without which man could not gain mastery over his environment and develop it in accordance with G-d’s will, which include:

a) “Safeguards”—laws that identify those forces and influences that are harmful to the soul and detrimental to its mission in life. These are the divine prohibitions, known as the mitzvot lo ta’aseh (“negative commandments”), which guard us against the spiritual pitfalls in our journey through life.

b) “Food to eat”—the divine knowledge and wisdom of Torah, which is digested and internalized by the soul to become “blood of its blood and flesh of its flesh” and form the very substance of its mindset and character.[21]

c) “Clothes to wear”—the mitzvot assei (“positive commandments”) which clothe the soul, enveloping it with an aura of  divine will.[22]

d) “Return”—the capacity for teshuvah. Teshuvah  is usually associated with the concept of repentance—the ability to restore a relationship with G-d that has been compromised by sin or failing. But in its broadest sense, teshuvah is the G-d-given potential to make an ally of an adversary. The repentant sinner rectifies his past by channeling the negative energy of his transgressions to fuel his yearning for a deeper connection to G-d; but one who has not actually sinned can also practice teshuvah by harnessing the ordinary, mundane elements of his life (including those that are not directly involved in the performance of a mitzvah) to serve a G-dly end.

The Human Element

Where does personal fulfillment figure in all this?

Can the “dwelling for G-d in the lowly realms” be constructed mechanically, by workers faithful to their employer but devoid of all understanding and appreciation of what they are doing? Can man serve G-d without experiencing Him as a personal and intimate presence in his life?

Ultimately, the answer is no. G-d desires that we serve Him “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”[23] That our life’s work should not be a robotic implementation of arcane commandments issuing from an incomprehensible G-d, but a labor of love that stimulates our minds, excites our emotions, and fulfills our every faculty.

Is this another “condition,” or is it part of the mission itself? Rashi, who states that “I come only to explain the simple meaning of the verse,” views the issue in its quintessential simplicity. Why was man created? To serve his Creator. Everything else is a condition, a means to this end. If it is required that man experience fulfillment in life, then G-d provides him with such capacity, just as G-d provides him with all the other necessary tools to do his job. But this is secondary to his purpose in life, which is to make the world a home for G-d.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, reads the Torah through the lens of a mystic—with an eye to the experiential and anthropomorphic dimension of reality. From this perspective, man’s experience of the Divine is not just a tool, but the purpose of life.[24]

As with all variant interpretations of Torah, “these and these are both the word of the living G-d.”[25] The soul’s elevation to a deeper relationship with G-d through its sanctification of physical life is both a condition for, and a component part of, the purpose of creation.

For the egotistical, self-oriented nature of man is also part of “this stone”—part of the obtuse physicality that is the lowest tier of G-d’s creation. It, too, must be developed into a “house of G-d,” into an environment hospitable to the divine truth. Thus, if our service of G-d were to be something we merely submitted to, there could be no true “dwelling in the lowly realm.” It would mean that the physical reality has not really been transformed, but that an extrinsic state, alien to its nature, has been imposed upon it. A true “dwelling in the lowly realm” is a product of the “lowly realm”—a product of physical man, appreciated by his physical mind, desired by his physical heart and motivated by his physical self. So an integral part of G-d’s dwelling is a human self for whom “G-d is my G-d”—for whom a life in the service of the Almighty is deeply satisfying and the ultimate in self-realization.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks [26].

Adapted from the writings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1] Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (2nd portion of the Shema); Leviticus 12:3-13; and numerous other.

[2] Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 44:1; see also Talmud, Makot 23b.

[3] Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.

[4] Likkutei Torah, Balak 73a; Umaayan 5706; et al.

[5] Maimonides’ introduction to the Chelek chapter of Sanhedrin, Principle Seven.

[6]  Deuteronomy 34:5. At the point of his passing, Moses is referred to as “the servant of G-d,” implying that this was the apex of his life’s achievements (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIV, p. 451).

[7] Talmud, Kiddushin 82b (as per Melechet Shlomo); see also Ethics of the Fathers 1:3; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence ch. 10; et al.

[8] Nachmanides on Genesis 12:6.

[9] Genesis 25:27; see Rashi, ibid, and on 28:9.

[10] The name Charan (“wrath”), say our sages, reflects the fact that it was “the focus of G-d’s wrath in the world.” Rashi on Genesis 11:32; Zohar I, 146a.

[11] See Genesis 31:38-41.

[12] Rashi on Genesis 32:5.

[13] Ibid., 33:18.

[14] Genesis 30:43.

[15] Ohr Hachaim on Genesis 28:14.

[16]  Cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 2: “A person’s progeny are his good deeds.”

[17] Genesis 28:18.

[18] Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.

[19] Tanya, ibid.

[20] Cf. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence, 9:1.

[21] See Tanya, ch 5.

[22] See ibid.

[23] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[24] Indeed, Kabbalistic teachings describe the purpose of creation “in order that G-d be known” by his creations (Zohar II, 42b), or “in order to do good to His creations” (Etz Chaim, beginning of Shaar Haklallim). Ultimately, these are various expressions of the quintessential purpose: G-d’s desire for a “dwelling in the lowly realm,” as explained in this essay.

[25] Talmud, Eruvin 13b; see “Debating Truths,” Beyond The Letter of the Law (VHH 1995), pp. 269-285.

[26] Likkutei Sichot, vol XV, pp. 243-251


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
17 years ago

The reference to Leviticus 12:3-13 in note 1 in this article is to the laws applicable to a woman after childbirth. Is that a correct reference to the subject (which suggest that I have misunderstood the reference) or is the reference in error?

17 years ago

the apparent conditionality of yaakovs oath bothers me. isnt he supposed to trust H enough to know that things will be provided? your description of the meaning of the material elements was helpful; but still, the apparent conditionality doesnt seem fitting for a tzadik of yaakovs stature. pls clarify.

The Meaningful Life Center