Fueled by nothing more than Twizzlers, black coffee, and grooves cranked to blasting, I drove through the day and deep into the night. From Arizona to Pennsylvania and back again, I stopped only for gas and more coffee, driving on until exhaustion overcame me and fatigue forced me off the road. My Tanakh rode shotgun, and each day began with prayer: “HaShem, HaShem, thank you for your protection. Thank you for watching over me and looking out for me. Thank you for guiding me safely here. Please protect me today. Please look out for me and help me arrive safely.” The heat in my car stopped working, my desert weathered windshield wipers failed somewhere around St. Louis, and on more than a few occasions I felt obligated to front massive swagger when I noticed I was the only woman in a remote truckstop. I wore my Star of David at all times and truly felt supported by unseen forces. My gratitude was genuine, as were my daily entreaties for protection.
Prayer is a near daily part of my life. I always offer gratitude, and have never felt comfortable making detailed and concrete requests. I have attempted to bargain with God. Writhing in bed for hours beset by food poisoning, I promised HaShem I would call my mother if the pain subsided. Ultimately, it did and I fulfilled my end of the deal. But I have never offered my faith as conditional on the quality of divine intervention. Never would I use my faith in an ultimatum – do this for me and I will follow You.
Our patriarch, Jacob, feels differently. This week’s parshah begins with Jacob dreaming of God and waking to a certainty of divine presence. “Jacob then made a vow, saying, ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).
It seems like a statement of some hubris. Jacob’s vow is almost a challenge. Fortunately, all worked out relatively well for him, but we do not know what might have happened had he lacked food and clothing on his journey or been prevented from a safe return. Would he have turned away from the God of Abraham? Offered a similar challenge to a competing pagan god? Abandoned the idea of divinity altogether?
The depth and scope of my own faith shifts continually. There have been times when I have experienced sublime connection with the infinite, and other moments when I understood exactly what our sages meant when they wrote of God retreating from our world. I have never lost my faith entirely, but I cannot be certain I never will. I understand how faith may disintegrate and disappear.
Many of us are unconsciously like Jacob, offering our faith in exchange for tangible results. If I attend services on the High Holidays, give tzedakah, be friendly with my neighbors, love my family, pay my taxes, and generally be a good person than surely God will have my back. If I pray every day and acknowledge God’s generosity, certainly HaShem will lift me up when I’m at my lowest. Invariably, we all encounter circumstances challenging our minds, hearts and bodies in ways that are painful and can be difficult to survive. There is no guarantee of fairness in life, and we can find ourselves innocent victims of systems and individuals. During these moments or years in our life, it can be easy to feel as if God stepped away. And to some degree, it can be comforting to withdraw from the idea of faith in something so utterly ineffable. Sometimes, it simply feels safer to place our trust in what we can confirm without doubt. There is indeed solace to be gained in an eagle-eyed focus on the concrete reality with which we’re confronted. There is absolutely nothing wrong with or shameful in such feelings.
I think of faith as a journey, replete with detours, roadblocks and pitfalls. Many different maps exist and we’re all traveling by different means. Losing faith may simply be part of the journey. Regaining it may be, as well. Diverse thinkers within Judaism have attempted to define the nature of divine omnipotence and offered competing theories to the eternal question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” All are worth exploring and millions of Jews have found truth and comfort in one or more of them. Ultimately, I believe a portion of my faith in God rests in my acceptance of the limits of my humanity. I am simply unable to perceive what lies beyond this present moment, and cannot know how any of this will unfold. Therefore, I cannot condemn God for abandoning me when I don’t know for certain that present difficulties will not serve me in some way. I trust I do not possess enough information to make categorical assessments of divine presence. I also trust my own strengths, abilities and resilience. Combined, these fuel the flame of faith within me.
Faith is also a choice. At some point, we all make the choice to believe in something beyond what we can know, or not. The choice is easy when everything is going well for us and far more difficult when things aren’t. Jacob’s vow is an opportunity to assess the foundations on which our own faith rests, or the conditions that may have fostered an absence of faith. Both are valuable points from which to proceed, and both may guide us forward on our journeys.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.