Here’s a riddle for you: What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Answer to follow.
In this week’s Torah reading — Parashat Veyetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3 — we encounter our forefather Jacob departing his home in Beersheva to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. Recall that Esau was not too happy that Jacob fooled their father, Isaac, into bestowing the blessing of the first born upon Jacob, when in fact, Esau was the first born and legitimately due the blessing. Told by their mother that Esau was planning to kill him, Jacob unhesitatingly heeded her advice and got the heck out of Beersheva. Before Jacob left for Haran, though, Isaac bade Jacob to find a bride from among his kinsmen there.
Imagine how stressed Jacob must have been then! Not only might his vengeful brother have been in hot pursuit. Not only was the pressure on him to find a bride. But he was also leaving the comfort and safety of his home. Tradition presents Jacob as a homebody, the favorite of his mother, bookish. He was now way out of his element! Had any of us been Jacob, our anxiety levels would have been through the roof.
It was in that state of emotional and physical vulnerability that Jacob received his first prophecy from the Divine. Weary from his travels, Jacob found a place to lie down for the night. He did what any of us would have done: he found a comfy stone to lay his head on and went to sleep. While he was sleeping, Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven as God stood by his side promising him land, progeny and protection. It’s a wonder that Jacob could sleep at all, nevermind have a dream of such magnitude!
When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Then, to mark this transformative event, Jacob makes a vow, saying, “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 I return safely to my father’s house — Adonai shall be my God.” Then he set up a pillar, a sacred marker, so future generations could build on that spot a House of God.
Wait just a second. Did Jacob just ask God to give him “bread to eat and clothing to wear?” That’s odd. He didn’t ask that God help him find a beautiful wife and vanquish Esau?
Now I get it! I could never figure out what God saw in Jacob. The Torah doesn’t portray Jacob as especially worthy of God’s blessing, and I’ve never found the midrashim — the rabbis’ creative readings between the lines of the Torah — at all convincing. But here it is! Of all the things Jacob could have prayed for in that moment, he prayed not for spectacular miracles but for bread and clothing — for those things that he already had. At that moment, I believe, Jacob thought, “My brother may harm me and I may not find the bride of my dreams. Still, all I ask is that God sustain me and let me keep my dignity. And should I die, let me find repose in the land of my fathers.”
Medieval biblical commentators implicitly criticize Jacob for having fallen asleep in that place. They point out that if Jacob had known God was in the place, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in the first place. “I would have prepared myself to receive prophecy,” they imagine Jacob saying. But our sages overlook that aspect of Jacob that he had in common with all other prophets: he wasn’t expecting a personal relationship with God and he certainly didn’t feel worthy of God’s prophecy. He was too busy facing the exigencies of life and, despite the pressures that beset him, he was grateful just for “bread to eat and clothing to wear.” Had Jacob known God was in that place and held vigil throughout the night, God might never have appeared to him. It was specifically because Jacob had no grand expectations of God that God permitted him to fall asleep there and appeared to Jacob in a dream.
Consider this: we are at our must humble and vulnerable when we are asleep. We cannot sing our praises nor fight our foes when we are unconscious. Jacob may not have been a great role model for future generations, but here we find him at the peak of humility and vulnerability. That’s the model that the Torah wants us to follow. Jacob wakes up and expresses his gratitude for the simple things: bread and clothing. Maybe that’s why our traditional morning services also begin with expressions of gratitude for the little things: food, clothing, the ability to function. No matter what prophecy might come to us in our dreams, we must still be grateful for the basics, just as Jacob was.
And so, here we are, hunkering down in fear of the coronavirus. We pray that God, scientists, government officials and our neighbors will come together to vanquish this foe. Anyone who is heeding the advice of the CDC and refraining from traditional gatherings with family and friends is praying that the time will be near when we can again experience the hugs, kisses, laughter and — just maybe — heated exchanges that make those gatherings so special. In this moment of time, we are no different from Jacob.
Fearful of Covid-19, longing for a loving embrace, overcome with uncertainty, what are we to give thanks for this Thanksgiving? Jacob has given us the answer. We are to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives and for the simple things that sustain us and give us dignity. We have a choice: we can focus on what we lack due to circumstance or we can focus on all that we have by the grace of God. If we pay attention to the subtle hint in this week’s Torah portion, we’ll choose the latter. And when we do, we’ll discover the answer to our riddle.
Thanksgiving during a pandemic is… Thanksgiving.
Enjoy this time as best you can, and give thanks for love and grace in abundance.