Vayeitzei: The Terror

If it were not that the god of my father—the god of Abraham and the pachad of Isaac—was there for me, you would send me off now empty-handed! (Genesis/Bereishit 31:42)

pachad = (as a verb) tremble in terror; (as a noun) terror; extreme religious awe; something causing terror

God has many names in the Torah, but the only place where God is called Pachad Yitzchak—the Terror of Isaac—is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went). Jacob calls God the “Terror of Isaac” twice during his final confrontation with Lavan, his uncle and father-in-law. Up to this point, Jacob has used only the two most common names for God: the four-letter personal name of God that is a variant of the verb “to be”, and Elohim, a plural word which can mean either the God (the god of Abraham and the Torah), or several “gods”.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves home and spends 20 years in Aram in northern Mesopotamia, working as a shepherd for Lavan. He marries Lavan’s daughters Leah and Rachel, and they loan him their personal slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. With these four women Jacob has eleven sons and one daughter. He also amasses large flocks of his own, thanks to his clever animal husbandry. Then he hears God tell him it is time to return home to Canaan, and his wives agree. So Jacob leaves with his whole family and all his flocks and other possessions while Lavan is away shearing sheep. Seven days later, Lavan and his kinsmen catch up with them on Mount Gilead. Lavan tells Jacob:

It is in my power to do harm to you, but the Elohim of your father spoke to me last night, saying: Guard yourself against speaking to Jacob anything from good to bad. (Genesis 31:29)

Lavan makes a scene despite his dream, and then Jacob protests that Lavan would have sent him off empty-handed after 20 years of labor–if God, the Terror of Isaac, had not been on his side. Lavan protests that his daughters and grandchildren all belong to him, not to Jacob. But then the two men make peace, and Jacob raises a memorial stone and builds a cairn (a heap of stones) to mark the spot. Lavan says:

“A witness is this cairn, and a witness is the standing-stone, that I will not cross over past this cairn to you, and that you will not cross over past this cairn or this standing-stone to me, for [any] bad [purpose]. The elohim of Abraham and the elohim of Nachor, may they judge between us—the elohim of their father.” And Jacob swore by the pachad of his father, Isaac. (Genesis 31:51-52)

It is not clear whether Lavan is calling on one god, or several, to judge between him and Jacob if either breaks the pact. The two men are branches on a complex family tree. Lavan is the grandson of Nachor. Jacob is the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, Nachor’s brother; but he is also the son of Rebecca, who is Nachor’s granddaughter. Abraham had only one god, Elohim, the god of the four-letter name. Nachor recognized Abraham’s god, but probably worshiped other gods as well, other elohim. The Torah also does not say whether Terach, the father of Abraham and Nachor, worshiped one God or many.

Lavan keeps terafim, statues or idols of household gods, until Rachel steals them. So when Lavan swears by the elohim of Abraham and Nachor and Terach, he probably does not care whether he is referring to one god or to multiple gods. He phrases his oath to cover the alternatives.

But at the beginning of this Torah portion, after his vision of angels going up and down the ladder, Jacob pledges his allegiance to a single god, the god of Abraham and Isaac, the god with with four-letter name. Now, when he makes his pact with Lavan, he deliberately avoids any ambiguity about God. He swears by the god of his father, by the Terror of Isaac.

Classic Jewish commentary explains that although everyone must serve God with both love and fear (or awe), Abraham’s primary connection with God is love, while Isaac’s primary connection with God is fear. After all, Isaac must have experienced the ultimate awe and terror before God when he lay bound on the altar with the sacrificial knife at his throat.

Jacob’s own experience of God is less extreme. In last week’s Torah portion, when he mentions God to Isaac, he says Eloheykha = your God. Obviously he has heard a lot about God from his father, but has no direct experience. Then on his way to Aram, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder in a dream, and encounters God standing over him. When he wakes up, Jacob says:

Surely there is (The Name) in this place, and I, I did not know! (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob feels awe over his numinous experience. Maybe he has the goosebumps I associate with yireh, the fear and/or awe of God. But he is not overcome by the uncontrollable shivering I associate with pachad, the terror of God. After he gets up, Jacob switches to bargaining mode, promising that if Elohim takes care of him, then he will serve only the god of The Name. This is not terror.

Yet Jacob calls God “The Terror of Isaac” during his final parting from Lavan. I believe he does so to clarify that the god he serves is not trivial, not one of many gods, but the ultimate God of life and death and beyond. That pachad is the God who is there for him—so watch out, Lavan!

I have been touched by yireh, the divine at the goosebump level. I have not experienced pachad, the divine terror. I hope I never do. I am like Jacob in one way, at least: I like making arrangements for my life in the ordinary world, without divine interference. If I thought I could bargain with God, I would give it a try. Meanwhile, I focus on my own family and my own work. When I pray, I try to cultivate love and awe—but not terror.

Yet I know what is going to happen to Jacob in next week’s Torah portion. He will wrestle with a mysterious being, and walk away limping on his hip, with the blessing of a new name, Israel, and a new awareness of his inner nature. He could run away from Esau, and then from Lavan, but he could not escape from wrestling with God.

I can only pray that everyone who is overwhelmed by terror is able to walk away—traumatized, like Isaac, or limping, like Jacob—and go on living, with new insight.

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