A Theology of Thanksgiving

Parashat Vayetze 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

A Theology of Thanksgiving

For the last few weeks, we have engaged in a ‘character study’ of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The stories of Genesis are not only accounts of their triumphs and innovations but also reports of their flaws and sensitivities. It is this that gives our stories staying power: we are not a tradition of saints but of human beings and we can all find ourselves in the experiences of our ancestors.

Parashat Vayetzeh, as well as Vayishlach and Vayeshev are illustrative of Jacob’s story arc. In fact, the name of each parashah – Vayetzeh (‘and he went out’), Vayishlach {‘and he sent’) and Vayeshev (‘and he dwelt’) are themselves microcosms of Jacob’s growth, from a fleeing con-artist and troublemaker to a God-wrestler and ultimately, as someone who settles into wholeness and peace, ready to bless and charge the next generation with the Abrahamic mission.

Vayetzeh focuses on Jacob’s early and dark days. The renown Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg notes that Jacob’s journey starts with a setting sun and ends with the rising sun, prompting her to term this ‘Jacob’s dark night of the soul’ as he struggles with his own instincts and deceptions and the complex relationships in his family.

Still, that’s not where we are yet. Before Jacob goes through his monumental transformation, his encounter with Rachel, Leah, Laban and ultimately, his nemesis, Esau, he has an encounter of a very different type. As he journeys from Be’er Sheva to Charan, he decamps for the night near a city called Luz. It is here that he has his ‘chalom’, his dream, where the angels of God ascend and descent down a ladder connecting Earth and Heaven. In his dream, God speaks to him, affirming the covenant with his grandfather and father adding in an additional promise of staying by Jacob’s side.’

Jacob awakes trembling and famously proclaims: ‘Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati… mah nora hamakom hazeh ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v’zeh ha’sha’ar shamayim’. ‘Surely, God was in this place and I did not know… how awesome is this place, this is nothing but the House of God and the Gate to Heaven!’ (Gen. 28:16-17). Please pay attention to the usage of the word ‘makom’, place, which we first see in the opening of the portion: ‘Vayifgah bamakom’ – ‘he came upon a certain place.’ Then makom is used twice more in his mystical proclamation: as a place of divine encounter, a locality for the transcendent. Rabbinic literature theologically extrapolates from this, designating Makom as one of the Names of God, meaning ‘Omnipresent.’

What is remarkable about Jacob’s encounter is not just the nature of his vision: from the days of Adam and Eve and every Biblical generation after them, people have had very direct experiences of the Divine. Visions, miracles, offerings and prayers are in no short supply. What makes Jacob’s case of particular interest is his response. Not only does he build a relationship with God based on his experiences but he actually formulates a theology of wonder and awe, a nexus of the immanent and transcendent. He brings in what we make call a panentheist (or if we want to push the boat out further, a Spinozist) consciousness of a world suffused or even equivalent with the Divine. Rashi identifies ‘makom’ as Mount Moriah; the site of the Binding of Isaac of yore and of the Temple of the future. Midrash Rabbah brings in a new, daring perspective of Divine immanence altogether:

‘Why do we call God haMakom, the Place? Said Rabbi Yosef ben Chalafta: we do not know whether God is the place of the world or whether the world is God’s place. But when the verse (Ex. 33:21) states, ‘behold, there is a place with Me’, it follows that God is the place of the world but the world is not God’s place.’

Rabbi Yoself ben Chalafta articulates the classical panentheist (as opposed to a Spinozist or pantheist) position: the universe dwells within the Divine but the Divine also transcends the universe. (As opposed to Spinoza’s ‘Deus Sive Natura’ – ‘God or Nature’, where the Divine and the Universe are equated).

We can ask ourselves what the theological consequences are of Jacob’s mystical encounter. In fact, the Torah tells us, only a few verses later when Jacob erects and anoints a matzeivah, a pillar and vows a vow, in honor of his encounter.
Im yihyeh Elohim imadi ush’marti baderech haze hasher anoch holech v’natan li lechem le’echol uveged lilbosh, v’shavti vashalom el beit avi v’hayah Adonai li le’Elohim’ – ‘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 Eternal shall be my God’. (Gen. 28:20-21).

What is significant about his response is that it is not just shaped through mystical belief or philosophical deduction. Jacob is not a theoretician. Rather, his theology – like all of our own – is filtered through his lived experience and his particular character. There is faithfulness and gratitude in there as well as manipulation and entitlement. Jacob is inexperienced in his spiritual journey and has a tendency to default to his impulses and instincts. The question is: can we manipulate God? ‘If God gives me X, then I will do Y’ smacks of pediatric theology at best and prosperity theology at worst. Jacob’s religiosity is immature and conditional, as if he has forgotten the magnificence of his earlier encounter and failed to internalize his experience of joy, beauty, awe and wonder. God becomes a currency to trade for life’s good fortunes but as he will find out and as we know, this is not how it works.

Yet there is beauty in here too. ‘V’shavti bashalom… Adonai li l’Elohim’ – ‘and if I return in peace (or wholeness), the Eternal will be my God’. There’s a powerful lesson in there of thankfulness and perspective. Of an acknowledgement that our life is a journey; often a long, painful and winding one at that; and that many of us may encounter a dark night of the soul.

As I sat at the Thanksgiving table last Thursday with my family, I personally had much to be thankful for. I cannot articulate my happiness, gratitude and appreciation to be here; the fulfillment of an old and cherished dream. Yet like Jacob, it serves us well to be mindful of what our journeys may yet bring. Whether we are atheists, agnostics, pantheists or theists, gratitude and perspective, wonder and awe can be the shared spiritual language that unites us all. ‘Mah nora hamakom hazeh’. Sometimes our blessings catch us unaware. We are fortunate to have these stories and a tradition that can help shape our response: through service, not entitlement, through gratitude, not complacency, through awe, not jadedness – and to give thanks.


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