Vayishlach: Thanks to all … no exceptions
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Vayishlach: Thanks to all … no exceptions

Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Tenafly, Reform

Happy Thanksgiving! I realize Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday and I am writing this for a Jewish newspaper, but the vast majority of American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving. And why not? The holiday may not be Jewish but the sentiment — giving thanks — certainly is. Indeed, gratitude to God is at the heart of our spirituality as Jews.

It is also front and center at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. In last week’s portion, Vayetze, our ancestor, Jacob, left his home and his family in Canaan under duress, fleeing from his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of his birthright and father’s blessing. Jacob then spent 20 years living with his uncle, Laban, shepherding his flocks and marrying Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel. As this week’s Torah portion opens, Jacob is once again on the move, this time returning to Canaan, where he knows he must confront his brother who was last seen threatening to kill him.

The opening scenes in each of these two Torah portions set up an interesting contrast when it comes to the question of gratitude. In Vayetze, when Jacob leaves Canaan he has to stop on his journey north when the sun sets. He lies down, using a rock as a pillow, and dreams of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down it. In this well-known dream God is at the top of the ladder and makes the same covenantal promise God had made to Abraham, that Jacob’s descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and come to possess the land of Canaan. God also promises to protect Jacob on his journey and bring him back to this land. Jacob then awakens and famously declares, “Wow! God is in this place and I did not know it!”

Less well-known is the vow that Jacob makes to God at that time: “If God is with me and watches over me on this path that I am taking and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the Eternal will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a monument will be a house of God. And of all that You give me, I will give a tenth to you.” (Genesis 28:20-22) Among our rabbis of old Jacob’s vow was quite controversial. Instead of simply asking God to help him, in this vow Jacob seems to be bargaining with God, saying that if God helps him and protects him, then he will worship God and give a tithe to God. Some of the great Torah commentators, such as Abravanel, are openly critical of Jacob for setting these conditions on his commitment to God and willingness to offer the tithe. Others try to defend Jacob by arguing that Jacob was not trying to broker a deal with God but, rather, simply stating the fact he could only do what he promised if God protects him and brings him back to the Land. Either way, one does not get a sense that Jacob is grateful to God for what God has done for him. For example, he does not thank God for enabling him to procure both the birthright and the blessing, though they should have belonged to his brother who was, after all, the first born.

Twenty years and one Torah portion later we find Jacob once again facing danger and once again praying to God. Only this time, his approach to God is quite different: “God of my father, Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac, Eternal One who says to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will make things go well with you’, I am unworthy of all the proofs of mercy and all the faithfulness that you have shown Your servant. For I crossed the Jordan with [nothing but] my walking stick, and now I have become these two camps. Save me, I pray from my brother’s hand….” (Genesis 32:10-12) Perhaps it was the hardships that he went through during his twenty year sojourn in Haran, the hard work, the way his unscrupulous father-in-law took advantage of him. Perhaps, it was just the maturity that comes with being older. But, in this week’s portion Jacob expresses a deep gratitude toward God for having protected him and given him his family and the success that he has had.

Inextricably tied to that gratitude is a sense of humility. The Hebrew word that Jacob uses is “katonti,” from the word, “katan,” meaning “small.” Translators typically choose a word like “unworthy” to express what Jacob means when he reflects on who he is and how he feels. But, the more direct meaning of feeling small may work better for us when we think about what it means to be grateful. Those who think that they are big, i.e. important or powerful, tend to attribute what they have — whether it is material wealth, status, or other achievements — to themselves. In order to be grateful, one must realize that the world is much bigger than you are — no matter how big and powerful one may actually be — and that, on a deep level, one owes everything that one has to others. Ego is the enemy of gratitude.

The Torah has a great way of expressing this in Deuteronomy when Moses warns the Jewish People about what might happen to them when they enter the Promised Land and prosper: “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness….And you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand has won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to get wealth….” (Deuteronomy 8:12-18). As the S’fat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, put it, “Pious people think they are unworthy of God’s gifts; while others think they are deserving of such gifts and more.”

This applies not only to gratitude toward God but also toward the people around us. The author, A.J. Jacobs just came out with an unusual new book in which he describes his quixotic journey to say thanks to every person who, in some way, contributed to the cup of coffee that he bought each day at his local coffee shop. The book is called “Thanks A Thousand” because he literally thanks over a thousand people who in some way were involved in the making and serving of his cup of coffee — from the barista in the coffee shop, to the coffee buyer, to the growers of the coffee beans in Central America, to the truckers, the warehouse workers, etc. etc.

This experience taught Jacobs that it doesn’t take a village to make a cup of coffee, it takes the whole world. He teaches some other great lessons about gratitude: the importance of “looking up,” and acknowledging those who are serving you each day; the value of taking a moment to savor the things that we do each day, so we appreciate them and are grateful; the impact of noticing all the amazing creations around us — both natural and man-made — which can give us a sense of wonder; and “fake it until you feel it” — how the act of saying thanks can impact our attitude so that we start to really feel grateful.

All of these teachings can be found in our Jewish tradition. Indeed, they are at the heart of the more than 100 blessings we are traditionally commanded to say each day. Whether one prefers the 100 blessings of the House of Jacob, or the 1,000 thank-yous of A.J. Jacobs, it is clear we have an awful lot to be grateful for. Let us keep that in mind as we celebrate this Thanksgiving and may we all truly feel blessed.

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