Friday, November 16, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Heresy of Entitlement

On the run from his brother Eisav, Yaakov is broke and alone. A yeshiva bachor by nature and seventy-seven years old, he must make his way northeast across hundreds of miles of trail to start life anew in a foreign land. Stopping for the night on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, Yaakov falls asleep under the stars and, for the first time in his life, he receives a prophecy. God promises him the world.
“I am God, Lord of Avraham your father and Lord of Yitzchak. I will give to you and to your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.
“I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have fully kept this promise to you.”
Bereishit 28:13-15
There is much here that Yaakov must have been thrilled to hear. Not only does God guarantee Yaakov’s safe return home, He also gives him the land of Israel and promises to make him a source of blessing for all humanity. But most significantly, God promises him children. Lots of them. For a single man getting on in years with a long history of infertility in his genes, this is a wonderful piece of news.

Yaakov’s reaction is intense.
Yaakov took a vow. “If God will be with me,” he said, “if He will protect me on the journey that I am taking, if he gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, if I return in peace to my father’s house, and if God makes Himself my Lord, then this stone that I have set up as a monument will become a temple for God, and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”
Yaakov is overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, and he wants to give back to God in the only way he knows how. In return for God’s blessings, Yaakov commits to transform this site into a center of divine service and worship – and indeed he does just that when he returns to Israel many years later (cf. 35:6-7).

It is a beautiful story, but something is very wrong here. Yaakov left out all the important blessings! Nowhere in his “acceptance speech” does Yaakov mention Israel, nor does he respond to God’s promise to grant him children. It would seem that Yaakov is most excited about the prospect of clothes, food and returning to his parent’s home in peace. How mundane! Certainly, the divine promises of Israel and nationhood are of greater significance than mere survival. Does being the father of the chosen nation mean nothing to Yaakov?

The contrast with Avraham is striking. When Avraham arrived in Israel, God appeared to him and said, “To your descendants I will give this land” (12:7). Avraham’s response? “He built an altar there to God who had appeared to Him” (ibid). Rashi explains: “‘He built an altar’ – on the news about children and on the news about Israel.” But when God makes these very same promises to Yaakov, Yaakov is silent. Why?

It would seem that the different reactions of Avraham and Yaakov reflect their different personalities. Avraham was a man of pure chesed, kindness, and he was thus better able to relate to and understand God’s chesed. Yaakov, however, was a son of Yitzchak, the personification of din, strict justice. Indiscriminate divine love was something he had trouble with. (Read more about Yitzchak and din here.) Like his father Yitzchak, Yaakov never assumed that life was secure (cf. 32:8; compare 14:14). (Significantly, God introduces Himself to Yaakov as the God of both Avraham and Yitzchak, cf. 28:13, but God stresses that Avraham, not Yitzchak, is Yaakov’s “father”!)

Yaakov was overwhelmed by the “small” gifts of survival and safety. For those alone he swore to build a temple for God. The gifts of Israel and nationhood were altogether too much to take. Faced with the enormity of those blessings, Yaakov was speechless.

This humble attitude appears again later in the parsha. Yaakov marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel; Leah is able to have children, but Rachel is barren. Exasperated by childlessness and jealous of her sister, Rachel confronts Yaakov:
“Give me children! If not, let me die!”
Yaakov got angry with Rachel. “Shall I take God’s place?” he said. “It is He who is holding back the fruit of your womb.”
The logic of his response notwithstanding, Yaakov’s anger seems unwarranted. It goes without saying that Yaakov was a caring and sympathetic husband. Why is he angry with Rachel? The language of the Midrash is more direct. “Is this the way to answer a person in pain?!” (Bereishit Rabba 71:1).

In light of what we have learned about Yaakov, it is not difficult to pinpoint the source of his anger. It is one thing for a frustrated woman to demand a child, but it is another to exclaim, “If not, let me die!” Rachel was saying that she felt her life was meaningless – even useless – without children. From Yaakov’s perspective, this bordered on heresy.

God owes us nothing. Man cannot even claim that he has a right to the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. On the contrary, these are to be seen as divine blessings that leave man eternally indebted. Being alive is reason enough to rejoice and build a sanctuary to express thanksgiving to God. Children? The gift of children is an otherworldly blessing that is well beyond human capacity to comprehend or appreciate. How can anyone say that life is useless without it?

In a similar vein, R. Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494) points out that the purpose of life is not raising children. The purpose of life is to do mitzvot and cultivate a relationship with God. That is why, says R. Arama, Yaakov got angry with Rachel. She forgot why she was alive.

Rachel got the message. When she finally does have a child, she exclaims, “God has taken away my disgrace” (30:23). The simple meaning is obvious, but the Midrash has an innovative reading.
As long as a wife does not have a son, she has no one to blame for her blunders. But once she has a son, she blames him. “Who broke this container?” “Your son.” “Who ate the figs?” “Your son.”
Bereishit Rabba 73:5; Rashi ad loc.
Are we to believe that Rachel wanted a child so she could have someone to blame for her mistakes?! What is the meaning of such a bizarre statement? The answer, as many have explained, is that Rachel wants to be sure that her thanksgiving is all-inclusive. She is not satisfied with simply thanking God for the child; she wants to express appreciation for every single advantage gained. And that includes having someone to blame.

In the end, Rachel absorbed Yaakov’s beliefs. God owes us nothing. We owe God – for every little thing.

[Read part-two here.]


  1. What about Yaakov's own middah of "Tiferes"? Did that only evolve later on? Does it have nothing to do with this encounter?

  2. I hope that all who read Rabbi Gordon's commentary appreciate its refreshing originality.

  3. Benji-
    Who knows? Does "Tiferet" necessarily preclude din?

    Greatly appreciated, but I'm afraid you're preaching to the choir here. Have you considered posting that comment on some other blogs? :)

  4. Benji-
    To be honest, I was wondering about this myself when I wrote the piece. This is what I was alluding to when I wrote (parenthetically):
    >Significantly, God introduces Himself to Yaakov as the God of both Avraham and Yitzchak, cf. 28:13, but God stresses that Avraham, not Yitzchak, is Yaakov’s “father”!
    What I was getting at was that God knew how Yaakov was going to react and He therefore wanted to gently remind Yaakov that Avraham is also his father. God wanted Yaakov to blend some extra chesed into the mix.

  5. Vayeitzei
    November 17, 2007

    On the run from his brother Eisav,...Stopping for the night on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere... **Actually, he stopped on the Temple Mount where his grandfather offered his father as a sacrifice to G-d. Yaacov knows that this place is where G-d came to his father and grandfather and performed a tremendous miracle, without which Yaacov would not exist!!. He did not arbitrarily stop at this site, but chose it for its holiness. We know that this site is holy, and that the soil, made up of the rocks of that area, contain the Schina of HaShem. By surrounding himself with stones, Yaacov was placing himself within the physical confines of the Schina. It is not surprising, therefore, that Yaacov says that he is in the House of G-d when he sees the angels going up and down the ladder.**

    Yaakov took a vow. “If God will be with me,” he said, “if He will protect me on the journey........**Somehow, I interpreted this differently. He seemed to be saying that all he needs is some bread to eat and clothing to wear ( a most modest declaration) and he would be faithful to G-d. Obviously, without these meager, basic necessities he could not survive in the physical world.**

    It goes without saying that Yaakov was a caring and sympathetic husband. It is one thing for a frustrated woman to demand a child, but it is another to exclaim, “If not, let me die!” Rachel was saying that she felt her life was meaningless – even useless – without children........**As I recall, Hanna (the mother of Samuel) in the Book of Samuel had a similar reaction; although, in her case, she prayed to HaShem for a child, vowing dedication of her son to HaShem in return for obtaining her future son, Samuel**

    ***Question!!! Yaacov spent most of his time in the fields, looking after the flocks of Lavan. Please explain how Rachel and Leah obtained the midot that conformed to Yaacov's way of life. Clearly, most of the time the children of Rachel and Leah were spent with their mothers, so how did they obtain the proper training? Recall that their mothers were brought up in the household of Lavan, not the best role model for desirable midot.***

  6. Al-
    I admit I hesitated when I wrote "in the middle of nowhere." As you wrote, it was, in fact, quite the opposite - it was the center of everywhere. Although the Midrash you quoted would indicate that Yaakov knew where he was, the simple meaning of the text indicates otherwise. When Yaakov awoke from his dream, he exclaimed: "God is in this place and I didn't know!" (28:16). Rashi comments that had he known, he never would have gone to sleep there.

    I don't think we have any way of knowing exactly how much of his time Yaakov spent in the fields. If I had to guess, I would say he came home every night (cf. 30:16). Remember, the Torah described his personality as more of a "dweller in tents" than a "man of the field" (25:27). Note also that when given the choice, Rachel & Leah preferred to move away with Yaakov than be near their parents and siblings (cf. 31:14-16). Judging by the way Leah names her children, Yaakov's attention & love was clearly central to her life.
    It stands to reason that Rachel & Leah were Yaakov's greatest disciples.