Vayetzei 5781: How Much Am I Loved? Let Me Count the Ways...
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )
GOOD MORNING! This week almost everyone here in the USA celebrates the holiday of Thanksgiving and nearly 88% of Americans celebrate it by eating turkey (about 46 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving!).
In normal years, 96% of Americans gather with their families to celebrate the holiday, including about 50 million who travel more than 50 miles to be together. Even though family gatherings are usually a good thing, on Thanksgiving it seems to be inevitable that you will sit across the table from an older couple smiling vacantly at you while neither one of you knows exactly how you are related.
Of course, gathering with extended family is sometimes a mixed blessing.
Piling multi-generational families into a confined space often leads to heated political or philosophical arguments, some tense moments, and the requisite hurt feelings. Additionally, those with young children are not overly enthralled by the parenting advice they receive from relatives who they see once or twice a year. Thus, for many Thanksgiving is the time when they are reminded why they live thousands of miles away from their family.
Still, even with all its issues, Thanksgiving is a meaningful experience for most. The ultimate proof is that everyone gathers the following year and does it all over again.
Unfortunately, many families miss the point of this holiday; making an accounting of all for which they are thankful. This is particularly important this year. Tragically, many families are going through very difficult times. For some, this will be the first holiday without loved ones whom they lost to COVID, while others may be facing financial hardships due to loss of employment or a business closure.
Certainly, this year Thanksgiving will be different for most, as less people are traveling and less people are gathering for Thanksgiving. The average celebrations will be much smaller and stores are reporting that most everyone is looking for smaller turkeys (though presumably the consumption of Wild Turkey will not be significantly diminished).
Therefore, this Thanksgiving it is more important than ever to take stock of what we are most appreciative of in our lives. EVERYONE has what to be thankful for, and it is in these difficult times that gratitude must become a deliberate and active practice.
Even though Thanksgiving is a “secular” holiday, the concept of giving thanks is very much a Jewish value. Perhaps it can even be said that being grateful is the core Jewish value. This is known as hakarat hatov – “recognizing the good.”
Have you ever wondered about the etymology of the word Jew? The English term Jew originates in the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi – those who are descended from the tribe of Judah. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob’s wife Leah and it was she who gave him that name. Why did she call him Judah?
The source for this is actually found in this week’s Torah reading:
“She conceived again and bore a son and said; ‘This time I will give thanks to the Almighty.’ Therefore she called him Judah” (Genesis 29:35).
The sages explain that the matriarchs were prophetesses and they “knew” that Jacob’s four wives would bear twelve sons. It was therefore presumed that each wife would be giving birth to three sons.
Therefore, when Leah gave birth to Judah, her fourth son, she recognized that she had received more than “her share” and she therefore called him Judah as a way of expressing her gratitude to God. The name Judah is based on the Hebrew word for thank you – todah. Thus, within the very name of the Jewish people is the “attitude of gratitude.”
Most are familiar with the sin committed by the first man – that of eating from the Tree of Knowledge after God had specifically forbidden him from doing so. But few are aware of how Adam really erred and compounded his sin by being ungrateful. A quick recap:
According to the Talmud (Avodah Zara 5b) and Rashi ad loc, Adam actually placed the blame for his sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge on the fact that God Himself had given him a wife who caused him to sin. Not only did he not take responsibility for his actions, he actually blamed the Almighty who had given him the incredible gift of his wife. Thus, Adam is forevermore labeled as an ingrate.
But there is a much more sinister and devastating aspect of taking the “attitude of ingratitude.” When a person fails to recognize all that is good in his life, then he also fails to appreciate those who are expressing love and kindness. The ultimate punishment of being an ingrate is that the person actually deprives himself of the greatest source all validation; that of being loved.
The real reason that a person should give thanks isn't merely because it is something that one owes. Rather, the real benefit of internalizing a kindness received, whether it was from a person or another agent of God, is to understand your self-worth. God loves you and He did something for you because you have a special value to Him. So being thankful is actually a way to begin to appreciate your own value and build self-esteem!
Happiness, more than anything, is about having a certain perspective on life. The surest way to achieving this perspective is by taking actively seeking out all that is in your life for which you are thankful. You must search it out and when you find it you must celebrate that goodness and soak it up.
There is a remarkable book called 365 Thank Yous written by John Kralik. If memory serves, I was originally given this book many years ago by my beloved friend and mentor Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory. In this work, the author details the many calamities and difficulties that were piling up, seemingly one on top of another, and in rapid succession.
Yet, when he made an active effort to catalog everything for which he was grateful, from the friendly barista at Starbucks to somehow barely managing to hold on to his law practice, his life began to change. This small book is an absolutely exhilarating story about how a year of writing thank you notes changed the author's life. I highly recommend it. In fact, it inspired me to begin to hand write thank you notes – a practice I have maintained for the last ten years.
A good place to start is by internalizing that you are not owed anything. Whatever you have is a gift. Life itself is a gift bestowed upon all of us by the Almighty. There are no assurances, promises or guarantees that come with this gift. Nonetheless, we must be appreciative of the opportunity and do our best to make the most of it.
My brilliant brother, Rabbi Akiva Zweig, uses his birthday as an opportunity to meet with those who are most meaningful to him in his life. He expresses to them his appreciation of who they are, some of what makes them special in his view, and how grateful he is to have them in his life. To those who are separated by distance or circumstance and therefore cannot meet, he writes long letters detailing the same. I guarantee you that he gets as much out of the process as anyone else.
In this incredibly difficult year, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of all that is good in our lives. When we begin to understand that whatever we do have is a gift, we can begin to put difficult and painful circumstances in perspective. After all, it isn’t what we have lost that is going to define us, it is moving forward with what we have that truly determines who we are.
Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
This week we have the trials and tribulations of Jacob living with and working for his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob agrees to work as a shepherd for 7 years in order to marry Rachel – only to have Laban switch daughters on him at the wedding. (This is why we have the bedekin, the lifting of the veil, at traditional weddings -- to ensure one is marrying the right bride.)
As Jacob tries to build his equity, Laban changes their agreement time after time. After 20 years, the Almighty tells Jacob the time has come to return to the land of Canaan. Jacob and his household secretly leave only to be pursued by Laban who has claims to put forth. The story ends with peace and blessings between Jacob and Laban.
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Miami 5:11 - Cape Town 7:21 - Guatemala 5:12
Hong Kong 5:21 - Honolulu 5:30 - Johannesburg 6:25
Los Angeles 4:26 - London 3:42 - Melbourne 8:04
Mexico 5:38 - Moscow 3:47 - New York 4:12
Singapore 6:35 - Toronto 4:25
Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.
— Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr