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This Week in Torah

Shabbat VaYetze 5775

Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3

Prophets: Hosea 12:13-14:10 & Micah 7:18

Causing Thanks                                                                 

The American mythology of the “first” Thanksgiving does not always sit well.  Alleged to have begun by the Pilgrims, a group of religious fanatics who came to North America the celebration of survival, should have taken place in springtime, after making it through their first winter here.  Because they came seeking religious freedom – but, only for themselves – it is less than unlikely that they envisioned today’s interfaith acknowledgment of diversity and pluralistic ideals which, in truth, are still not really shared by all.

Some liken the Pilgrim’s thanksgiving to Sukkot as described in the Hebrew Bible.  This theory has some merit, although it is hardly a perfect parallel.  The Pilgrims were Christians for whom the sacrificial system had been replaced by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  (We replaced it with the full range of mitzvot including prayer and good works.)  The Bible’s Rosh HaShannah/Yom Kippur/Sukkot system provides for a settling of ‘accounts’ with God and people in the hope that enough rain will fall before Passover so that the crops will grow and we will get through next summer.  It would have been a time for hopeful prayer more so than a time of Thanksgiving – that would have been on Passover, after the rains had fallen.

Today, North Americans have many reasons to be thankful to God, government and this, less than perfect but, very good society.  As Jews, we are supposed to give thanks in prayer and song at least three times each day.  Our Torah portion touches on this subject albeit with a somewhat different angle.

As we all know, Jacob, fleeing his brother’s understandable, if not totally appropriate, wrath dreams of a ladder or stairway reaching to heaven with God standing at the top.  Waking up, Jacob declares the spot to be the House of God and Gateway to Heaven.  He consecrates the stone upon which he slept and the place itself; most likely he made sacrifices and thereby expressed his thanks to The Creator.  No turkey, but not too shabby a thanksgiving either.

Jacob then goes ahead and makes a deal with God.  In exchange for safety, food and clothing, he offers 10% of everything that God will give him.  This text is the origin of the Biblical commandment of tithing, which is still expressed in many contemporary religious communities.   Some view this 10% cut as a payoff to God.  Others see it as a form of material thanksgiving.  Both are acceptable interpretations of the story and each expresses Jewish values.  But, there is an additional, and perhaps more helpful, understanding.

The Raibal takes note of the opening verses of our Parasha in which the text says that Jacob ‘touched’ upon the place where he had his dream and made his promises.  Many commentaries say that is an indication of Jacob’s saintly presence improving the locality.  In other words – the person makes the place great.  Raibal goes on to connect this phenomenon to the 10% cut by regarding it, not as a payoff or payback, but rather as an investment in Jacob’s partnership with God and an opportunity to ‘buy into’ the creation of a better, if not ultimate perfect, world.  Jacob wasn’t appeasing God – he was buying shares in Creation.  Additionally, Jacob was not expected to be a silent partner (or passive investor)  He and we are obligated, in conjunction with God, to invest –with both money and mitzvot – in the perfection of the world. 

That is truly an opportunity for which we should give thanks – every day!

Happy Thanksgiving & Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Steve Denker