I wrote this tonight, for the bentcher for my son's Bar Mitzvah. Thoughts appreciated:
The fourth blessing of Birkat haMazon identifies many Divine roles - King, Creator, Redeemer, and others. Along the way, we associate God with one of our patriarchs, Yaakov. We identify God as “the Holy One of Jacob” and “the Shepherd of Israel”. Why do we link God to Yaakov, in particular?
Yeshayah 29:23 predicts, “They will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and they will praise the God of Israel.” On this passage, Radak noted that God is defined as “the Holy One” uniquely in connection with Yaakov, whether under his given name or in his Yisrael capacity. Radak explained, “This is because Yaakov saw the sanctity of God in a prophetic vision, in the vision of a ladder standing on earth, with its head reaching heavenward.” This answer is itself cryptic, though; what was uniquely ’holy’ about this vision, and why would we connect it to Birkat haMazon?
Ramban (Vayyikra 19:2) explains holiness as a state apart, an existence which is separate from unworthy association. We are taught to make ourselves holy by separating from sin, as well as from pursuits which are permissible but unworthy of our attention.
Perhaps Radak sees this holiness in the ladder image; God is beyond our realm, and we are connected with Him only through intermediary angels which commute from our realm to the Heavenly court.
This notion of Divine separateness would be consistent with Yaakov’s experiences, as opposed to those of his predecessors. Avraham and Yitzchak lived in a world of the Divine; God expressed explicitly His desire to share information with Avraham, and Yitzchak gained permanent attachment to God when he cooperated with Avraham and offered himself as a sacrifice to God. Indeed, Yitzchak never left the land of God; he lived in the courtyard of Eden. Yaakov, on the other hand, despite his occasional conversations with God, became the first “Diaspora Jew”, wandering in exile and surviving trials and suffering without advice or reassurance from his Creator. From the day when he was forced to rely upon his mother’s wiles to receive a blessing she was certain was his due, to his decades of abuse at the hands of his uncle Lavan, to the loss of his son Yosef, Yaakov lived without Divine counsel. In Yaakov’s life, God was “holy”, separate, indeed.
God did manifest Himself to Yaakov early in his life, though, as he set forth into exile, in that vision of the ladder. God told Yaakov, “Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have accomplished that which I have told you.” With this message, God softened the vision of a distant God, atop a ladder; God would be aware of all that happened in Yaakov’s life, and would protect him and bring him home. The same message would be reiterated toward the end of Yaakov’s life, on his way down to Egypt. The “Holy One of Jacob” is distant from this world, but He watches and stands ready to aid.
In this light, the “Holy One of Jacob” is particularly appropriate for Birkat haMazon. In a blessing which tacitly declares God to be part of our lives, providing the mundane food we eat, we acknowledge that there is another side to our Provider. God is holy, distant, otherworldly in the extreme. And yet, we gratefully note that God is “the Holy One of Jacob”, willing to attach Himself to us and to our world in our protection. We pray that just as God protected our ancestor and saw that he returned home, so He will protect us, and bring us home to our land.