Would it surprise you to learn that there are those in the right-wing orthodox world today that question permissibility of observing Thanksgiving? Why? Because, they say, it’s a goyisha holiday. It’s not found anywhere in the Torah and we shouldn’t observe the holy days of non-Jews. I, as you might guess, couldn’t disagree more.
Hakarat hatov, “giving thanks,” is a supreme value in Jewish life. In fact, we are called “Jews” because most of us come from the tribe of Judah whose name means “giving thanks.” Judah’s mother Leah gave him that name to thank Gd for giving birth to her 4th child. Jews—in essence—are thanking beings. In addition, the Pilgrims of old modeled their thanksgiving observance on the Jewish thanksgiving festival of Sukkot.
On Sukkot we are commanded to live in a Sukkah to remember and be grateful that we lived in Sukkot for 40 years under Gd’s protection as we traveled from the Exodus of Egypt to the Promised Land. When we observe Sukkot and leave our spacious comfortable homes to live in a small hut it teaches us what is truly important in life—and that is what we can fit in a hut, a Sukkah, namely our family and friends, a chumash, a siddur. The Sukkah teaches us this is all we really need and to be grateful for all that. Throughout the year live within the 4 walls of our homes surrounded by all our “stuff.” But is all our stuff really that important?
In today’s Torah portion we have the dramatic confrontation of Jacob and his brother Esav. They’ve been apart for 20 years because Jacob ran away after Esav threatened to kill him. What does Jacob do before they meet? The Torah (Gen. 32:14-16) says: Vayikach min haba biyado, “Jacob took from whatever happened to be handy,” and sent it as a gift to Esav. Listen to what he sent: 200 hundred she-goats, 20 he-goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. That’s 550 animals!
Why so many? Most commentators understand that it was to soften and placate Esav. That certainly makes sense considering he threatened to kill Jacob. Another approach holds that Jacob sent him this lavish gift out of guilt to atone for having taken the birthright and their father’s blessing.
Recently I came across a very different approach by Rabbi Jack Reimer who maintains that these gifts were unnecessary because it seems that Esav was no longer angry at Jacob. When they meet, they hug, they kiss, they weep, and they make up. All their old enmity is forgotten. Esav then said (Gen. 33:8-11) : “What is the meaning of all these presents that you have given me?”
Jacob responds: limtzo cheyn b’eyney adoni, “I have brought you these things in order that I may find favor in your sight, my lord.”
To which Esav answers with a statement that has always impressed me: Yeysh li rav, “I already have plenty.” I don’t need anything more. And so let what’s yours be yours. But Jacob can’t accept that answer and urges him again and again until he accepts his gifts.
Rabbi Reimer suggests that Jacob—who tricked Esav out of his birthright and then his blessing—succeeds in tricking him a 3rd time. How? He writes:
I don’t know about you, but if I were invited to somebody’s house I don’t think I would bring 550 animals as a house gift…And if somebody brought you a gift of 550 animals as a house gift would you smile, and say, “Oh thank you, you shouldn’t have bothered?” or, “How lovely. This is just what I needed!” or would you mutter to yourself under your breath, “What am I going to do with 550 animals?”
Notice that the Torah says that Jacob took these animals from whatever happened to be handy, which means that he had lots more. And notice that Esav tries to refuse them, by saying: “I too am a rich man. I have plenty, and so I don’t really need these animals, really I don’t.” After the reunion the 2 of them part once again, leaving Esav to wonder about what is he going to do with, and how is he going to care for 550 animals?
This reminds me of the story about Abba Eban and Chaim Weitzman, the 1st president of Israel. Weitzman went on a state visit to Africa and the leader of one country wanted to give him an elephant as a gift. Weitzman didn’t know what to do. If he refused the gift he might offend the leader of that important country. If he accepted it, what was he going to do with it and how was he going to it on the plane?
Weitzman turned to Abba Eban for advice, and Eban told him, “Mr. President, beware of gifts that eat.”
Rabbi Reimer suggests that the reason Jacob gave all these animals to Esav was that he was trying to get rid of all this excess baggage that was literally weighing him down and didn’t know what to do with. Jacob then becomes a role model for us because we live in an age when all of us are simply inundated with excess stuff.
The Pew Research Center reported this week that the average size of American homes is ballooning. In 1970 it was 1,692 sq. ft. and now it’s 2,657 sq. ft. It’s not because we have more children. We actually have less. The average house is built bigger today because we have more stuff. The average house a century ago had 2 closets. Try selling a house today with 2 closets. The average house built today has 5 to 7 or more closets—every one filled to the gills with our stuff.
A colleague of mine once asked his wife what she wanted for her birthday. She thought about it and said: “I would like to have less for my birthday.”
He said: “That’s nice, but how do I buy you less? Should I go to the store and ask if they have less for sale?”
She insisted that she wanted less, and do you know what they did on her birthday? The husband hired a baby sitter to take care of the kids and they spent her birthday going through the house—room by room—deciding what they didn’t need. They gave away old dishes that they had not used in years. They stuffed bags full of clothing for charity they no longer wear and they threw away tsatchkes they no longer liked. When they were through, they looked at their uncluttered shelves, and at their uncrammed closets and it felt so good.
Rabbi Reimer suggests that’s the way Father Jacob felt when he rode away with his family and his servants, and his flocks and his cows and his camels, and left 550 animals that he didn’t need behind for Esav to worry about. It was his way of getting rid of extra stuff that had become a burden instead of a pleasure.
I know a young couple who went hitchhiking through Europe and India for a couple of months and the only things they took with them were what they could fit into their backpacks. They said they felt so free and liberated—that is until they got home and all the stuff that they had bought along the way and mailed home began to arrive and they had no idea where to put it.
In one of my favorite George Carlin routines that I’ve shared with you before, George had some profound insights on our “Stuff.”
That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is—a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff…And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff…That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.
My friends, Thanksgiving is a reminder of a simpler, more basic life. The Pilgrims of old didn’t have much and many died for a lack of food and supplies. Yet they were grateful for what they did have for they understood the truth that whatever little or much they had was a gift from Gd—a gift that not only deserved but required their gratitude. They understood that sometimes Gd doesn’t give us all that we ask for but He does give us what we need. When we come to understand this, then we’ll be able to get rid of much of the stuff that we think we need—that weighs us down. And when we’re able to do that, we’ll live healthier, happier and more productive lives. And to this, let us all say: Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis