“So Jacob lifted his feet and went toward the land of the easterners.” (Genesis 29:1)
Parashat Vayetzei describes Jacob’s flight from Canaan to his uncle Lavan in Haran. Following his epiphany at Beth El (the dream scene with the ladder and angels) he vows, “…this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God and whatever you give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to you” (Gen. 28:22). This seems pretty straightforward: God promises to fulfill the brit, or covenant, through Jacob, and Jacob promises to do two things in return.
But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986; leading halakhic, or Jewish legal, authority of his generation) claims a cause-and-effect relationship between Jacob’s two responses. He assumes God’s house is a place to learn God’s ways. Feinstein understands “God’s ways” means g’milut chasadim, or acts of kindness. It follows, then, that only a person who engages in g’milut chasadim, who lives as a role model of kindly engagement with and concern for others, can aspire to building God’s house; performing ritual behaviors alone (which sometimes provide an exemption from g’milut chasadim) is not enough. Feinstein concludes by reading the verse to mean, “…This stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God because whatever you give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to you.” Jacob’s tithing (an act of kindness supporting those on the margins of society) is what allows him to build God’s house.
Theoretically, each mitzvah, or commandment, is equal in importance. Yet, throughout history, commentators have argued for the primacy of some mitzvot over the rest. Feinstein is clear on this matter: your behavior toward others is a proxy for your concern for God.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom