Vayetze, this week’s Torah portion, instructs a student of Torah how the mitzvah of tzedakah (righteous giving) can transform dreams into reality. Jacob, after having fled from his brother Esau settled down for the night in the desolate wilderness. There he dreamt of “a ladder set on the ground reaching heavenward with angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). God appeared to Jacob and reaffirmed promises made to Abraham and Isaac: “The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and your offspring. … All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” (Gen. 28:13).
Jacob, profoundly moved by this vision, exclaimed: “Surely God was present in this place, and I did not know it!” Overwhelmed, he [further] declared, “ma nora hamaqom hazeh” — “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17). Commentators have focused on the Hebrew word Maqom — “this place,” because it is one of many referents for “God.” Thus, Maqom is interpreted to mean that God can be found in any place, and that prayer can be offered at any time. But there is more than meets the eye in this explanation. A powerful undercurrent in Vayetze is disclosed through a further close reading of the text.
Fourteenth-century medieval commentator Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, also known as Yaakov Baal Haturim, author of the influential code of law entitled Tur, utilized gematria, the analytic rabbinic method of assigning a numerical value to letters of the Hebrew alphabet to explicate the meaning of Jacob’s experience. He observed that the Hebrew words sulam (ladder), mammon (wealth) and oni (poverty) all have the same numerical equivalent value of 136. He concluded from these numerically equivalent words that wealth is a ladder that can enrich or impoverish.
Properly earned and utilized, wealth can elevate human existence, but conversely, if improperly acquired or hoarded, wealth becomes a source of degradation and disgrace. The key to transforming dreams into reality is found in the account that follows Jacob’s dream:
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. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You gave me, I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Gen. 28:20-22)
In this first formal appearance in the Torah of the practice of tithing, Jacob pledged that were he to become successful, he would utilize some of his wealth to show his gratitude to God. However, laws regarding systematic tithing were not made mandatory until the writing of Book of Deuteronomy when one-tenth of the agricultural yield was specified as a farmer’s requisite offering. (Deut. 14:22-27)
Centuries later, the rabbis extended the definition of tzedakah by declaring that giving should be so automatic that it becomes instinctive because wealth and poverty are interdependent. They admonished the faithful to: “Give to God what is His, for you and all you possess are His.” (Pirke Avot 3.8)
Giving freely, without formality or taking time to think about the mitzvah of giving is a core Jewish concept because the need can be so pressing as to require immediate action. That is why Judaism omits a blessing for giving tzedakah from among the dozens of blessings that can be recited each day over food and drink, on seeing rainbows, lightening and oceans, on smelling fragrant bark, and so forth. Tzedakah, the commandment to give, is a mitzvah that may not be delayed or interrupted, even with a blessing. Tzedakah itself is its own blessing and Vayetze teaches a student of the Torah that giving to others without delay is that the best way to make dreams real.
Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.