וידר יעקב נדר לאמר: אם יהיה אלהים עמדי, ושמרני בדרך הזה אשר אנכי הולך, ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש. ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי, והיה ה’ לי לאלהים. והאבן הזאת אשר שמתי מצבה, יהיה בית אלהים, וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך.
(בראשית כ”ח, כ’-כ”ב)
Ya’acov leaves his home and embarks on a journey from which he will return only 21 years later, married to 4 women and father to 13 children. But right now, the future is uncertain. He dreams of the ladder and the angels, and in this dream God promises him many things: that he shall inherit the land, that he shall expand in all directions, that his offspring shall be many, that he shall be protected in his journey and that God shall be with him. Ya’acov wakes up from this dream and makes a vow:
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to put on. So that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God. And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to you. (Bereshit 28, 20-22)
In this vow, Ya’acov refers only to the promise that God shall protect him in his journey and return him home safely. He makes no reference to all the other promises from God. Why does Ya’acov refer only to the promises about his safety, and not to the grander promises of inheriting the land and of a great nation spreading upon the earth? Surely the Promised Land is no trivial thing; Ya’acov should have at least mentioned it in his vow.
One of the most famous psychological theories about humans is “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs“. According to Abraham Maslow, human needs are divided into five categories, arranged as a pyramid. At the base are physical needs: air, water, food, clothing, shelter. Then come safety needs: personal security, financial security, health. Once these are satisfied come the love and belonging needs: friendship, intimacy, family. Then come esteem needs, the needs to be respected and have a high self-esteem. At the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the need to fulfill one’s full potential.
These needs are hierarchical. For example, humans will seek to satisfy their physical needs before turning to safety. So long as the needs at a certain level are not satisfied, humans will not have the motivation to try and fufil a need from a higher level. But once the needs of a one level are satisfied, motivation kicks in and we focus on the higher needs.
Using this theory, we can now understand Ya’acov’s vow. God told Ya’acov what his self-actualization will be, the top of the pyramid: becoming a great nation and inheriting the land. But Ya’acov was not in a mental and psychological state permitting him to focus on this grand vision. Right now, he was running away from his brother (who wanted to kill him) and all he can think of are his most basic needs: food, water, shelter, protection. His vow refers to the fulfillment of these basic needs and a safe return to his home.
When Ya’acov says that only after returning to his father’s house safely “then shall the Lord be my God”, he is basically saying: until my basic needs are fulfilled I am not in a position to be worthy of God being my Lord, of fulfilling myself and my destiny, of becoming a grand nation. May this be a lesson to all of us. Focusing on the endgame may necessarily be the right decision at all times. Sometimes we need to focus on fulfilling other steps along the way before we can reach a level of self-actualization.