Weaving our way through the parsha, this week the portion of “Vayishlach,”, we join Jacob and his family’s journey as they continue their return to his father Isaac’s house. He’s finally extracted himself from his degenerate father-in-law Laban’s manipulation, and now that he’s crossed the threshold into the Holy Land, only one obstacle faces him on the horizon: His brother Esau, accompanied by a legions of four hundred armed men… and his intentions aren’t good. More than three decades later he is still seething over the blessings and firstborn rights Yaakov (Jacob) ‘stole’ from him, and he’s ready to kill. Yaakov swiftly mobilizes with a threefold countermeasure: preparations for battle, prayer, and sending of a gift in order to appease his older brother – an abundance of flocks and other wealth.
(Perhaps the Torah is hinting to a profound relationship secret here… You know how good husbands – particularly Jewish husbands – are usually a little intimidated by their wives? When he’s guilty of some misdemeanor, and worries, “Oy…my wife is going to kill me” – try buying her flowers, a piece of jewelry, or something else she will appreciate; with a little help from Heaven, maybe you’ll be spared! ;) But that aside…)
When Yaakov finally encounters Eisav (Esau) face-to-face, and confirms the entire procession of gifts is for him, in a rare display of seeming generosity Eisav affably states, “Yesh li rav – I have plenty; my brother, let what you have remain yours!” Yet the Sages criticize his words; it’s a catch-22 with these guys – you can never win. Let’s be serious, though… The Midrash sharply contrasts Eisav’s words with Yaakov’s corresponding statement just a few verses after; Yaakov urges his brother to accept the gift, explaining, “Yesh li kol – I have everything.”
Rashi comments that Eisav’s words, “I have plenty,” is an expression of gaivah (haughtiness), implying ‘I possess loads more than I even actually need,’ whereas Yaakov’s words, “I have everything,’ means, ‘I have everything for my needs.’ Some take this analysis a step further. They elaborate “I have plenty” denotes greed, i.e. ‘I already have a lot, but I covet more;’ however, “I have everything,’ expresses humility and satiation with one’s necessities and portion.
On this celebration of “Thanksgiving Day,” we can take a powerful note from the two brothers’ exchange – perhaps a key to true thankfulness: Simplicity in our needs, and satisfaction with our lot in life – particularly the material. To quote the esteemed R’ Mendel Kalmenson, author of the Seeds of Wisdom duology, “Material discontent is a vice; spiritual discontent is a virtue.” Would we prefer to be trapped in an endless pursuit for more money and ‘stuff’ – even if we find ourselves already with plenty to satisfy our needs? Or, would we prefer to slow down and live in the moment; to genuinely appreciate the abundant blessings which grace our lives – our loved ones, health, a job, education, a secure home, nourishment, clothing and shoes, to name just a few; to find contentment with what we have, sincerely believe ‘we have everything,’ and share it with others? In life, do we want to be takers, or do we want to be givers? In life, will we personify Eisav (ch”v), or Yaakov? Poignantly, it is as the Mishna states: “Eizehu ashir? Hu sameyach b’chelko – Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his portion.”
Interestingly, the Hebrew word “Hodu” means both “thanks” and “acknowledgement.” When we express gratitude to G-d and others, recognize our good fortune, and acknowledge the ultimate Source of all beneficence, it should inspire us to recreate and pass on those blessings to others, so they might benefit as well. We must allow the blessings we receive to give birth to a ripple-effect of goodness and kindness in this world… and it will catalyze by our own actions. It’s a truly simple thing to implement, even by way of a ‘small’ gesture, to show our love for another and care for their wellbeing. Smile at someone, offer assistance, express thanks, be a listening ear, give tzedokoh, provide a warm meal for a neighbor in need… and heal the world. The purpose of all abundance we receive is so that we may utilize it to help another being.
Those unable to acknowledge their blessings will perpetually feel disadvantaged, needy, discontent with life and the myriad opportunities it has to offer, often consumed by insatiable thirst for ever more material assets and things that aren’t of true value. Needless to say, they will never feel thankful. On the other hand, those who feel grateful and satisfied in recognition of all they have will realize just how much they have to give.
“Tov l’hodos laHashem – It is good to thank the Lord!” (Tehillim 92:2)
“Ahal’la Sheim-Elokim b’shir v’agadlenu b’todah – I shall praise the Name of G-d with song, and I shall magnify Him with a thanksgiving offering.” (Tehillim 69:31)
Happy Thanksgiving, and may your every day be illuminated with a song of gratitude!
P.S. It is fascinating to note that the present common term for Jewish people, is “Yehudim,” after Yaakov’s fourth-eldest son, Yehudah (or Judah). Yaakov married four wives, and was destined to beget the Twelve Tribes; logically, three children per mother would be an ‘equal share’ among the wives (3 x 4 = 12). Yet when Leah merited to conceive and give birth to a fourth child, more than her ‘portion’ in helping build the Jewish People, she exclaimed “Now I will truly thank Hashem!” This disposition to gratitude has been passed down throughout the generations, woven into our spiritual DNA; thankfulness is a natural trait to the Jew (even if external factors may seem to warp and conceal it). Thus, today, we are called “Yehudim” – Jews – and a very grateful nation. What are you personally thankful for?