This week, we celebrate Thanksgiving, which for many of us is less about gratitude and more about consumption, consumerism and perhaps some family discord. Dedicating time to be grateful is hard. It’s often easier to think about what we don’t have or what’s not going quite right yet than it is to stop, clear out the noise of daily life and give thanks.
American culture doesn’t help us much — Thanksgiving has largely become a carbo-loading stop on the way to Black Friday and Cyber Monday; despite some newer efforts to promote family and altruism, like StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening and the newish philanthropic effort of #GivingTuesday, Thanksgiving seems to have largely become the gateway to Christmas.
For Jews, Thanksgiving may have its own resonances as a sort of secular Passover, in which we celebrate our exodus from the trying immigrant experience into full participation in American culture — and all without a ritual seder to delay the meal!
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, offers some insight into the challenges of gratitude and the dangers of eschewing thanksgiving. It begins with Jacob on a journey, having left home abruptly after stealing his brother’s birthright. In transit, he stops for the night, taking a stone for his pillow. At this moment of vulnerability, he has a powerful dream-vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder, and God promising him a great future and inheritance.
When he awakens, Jacob is moved by the unexpected holiness of the place. He declares, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God” (Genesis 28:17). In this liminal space and time, on the road with nothing but a stone for a pillow, he is nevertheless able to experience the awe that comes from awareness. For a moment, he is present to the miracles around him and able to give thanks for them.
Quickly, though, he shifts into a different mindset, one of mistrust and negotiation. Though he has just anointed the rock and renamed the site Beth-El (house of God), his next step is to make a vow framed as a quid pro quo: “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (Genesis 28: 20-21).
In this shift, Jacob loses the awe and gratitude he experienced upon first awakening, and reverts to his previous mode of wariness. We can understand his self-protective instincts at this moment of vulnerability. And yet these responses get in the way of his gratitude for the blessings he’s been given, even if they are yet to be fulfilled.
This spirit of suspicion and negotiation infuses the rest of the story, as Jacob and his father-in-law Laban each try to cheat the other in their dealings over wives, business and property. Rachel and Leah (Laban’s daughters and Jacob’s wives) are also drawn into this corrosive atmosphere, pitted against each other and constantly competing for Jacob’s attention and for God’s blessings of fertility.
It is difficult for Jacob to break this cycle of behavior and attitude. Even when he decides to leave Laban’s house and strike out on his own with his large family and flocks, he is pursued under suspicion. The portion thus ends with another vow and another pillar, God invoked this time not in thanks but rather in order to watch over Jacob and Laban and referee their behavior.
The vow Jacob and Laban take at this moment is not a vow of promise but of warning, and the two men can’t even agree on a name for the place! Still, they end the day with a sacrifice to God and a festive meal for Jacob’s kinsmen (which, theoretically at least, should include Laban, who doesn’t depart until the following morning).
Overall, then, this portion serves primarily as an illustration of how not to cultivate gratitude. Jacob’s awe is fleeting; gratitude, in its few expressions, is wielded as a weapon against others (“Look at what God has given me”), and Jacob rarely pauses in his drive to accumulate to be present to what he already has. (Sound familiar?).
And yet, what this story offers to the person seeking a meaningful model of thanksgiving is precisely the recognition that gratitude is very challenging for most human beings, even the ones chosen by God to produce a new nation. Jacob becomes known as a “God wrestler”; like many of us, it is easier for him to fight than to give thanks.
The portion ends as it began, with Jacob once again noticing and naming God’s presence: “When he saw [the angels], Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim” (Genesis 32:3).In the ongoing process of cultivating gratitude, noticing and naming are the necessary elementary steps to which we must keep returning.
Judith Rosenbaum is executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national nonprofit devoted to making known the stories, struggles and achievements of Jewish women in North America and beyond.