Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Heresy of Entitlement II

[Read part-one here.]

I would like to both clarify and expand on my recent post on this topic.
  1. The central point of my post was that Yaakov never felt entitled to anything and that is why he was so grateful when God promised to protect him. The hypothesis is this: When you receive something that you think you are entitled to, there is little cause for thanksgiving. But if your expectations are zero, then anything and everything you get is perceived as a free gift and thanksgiving is in order. It turns out that Rashi in our parsha makes this same point quite explicitly. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that "the matriarchs were prophetesses who knew that twelve tribes would come from Yaakov" (Rashi to 29:34). Yaakov married four women, so that means that each wife is "entitled" to three sons. When Leah's fourth son, Yehudah, was born, Leah said, "Now I will thank God" (29:35). Rashi explains her meaning: "Now that I have taken more than my portion, I must thank [God]." This Rashi is based on a Midrash which illustrates the point with a parable:
    R. Berachya said in the name of R. Levi, "A Kohen went to the granary. One guy gave him a pile of ma'aser (a tithe that must be given to a Levite) and the Kohen did not thank him for it. Another guy gave him a handful of ordinary grain and he thanked him for it. [The first guy] said to him, 'My Master Kohen, I gave you a pile! This guy gives you a handful and you thank him?' [The Kohen] replied, 'You gave me my own portion, but this guy gave me from his own. That is why I thanked him.' Similarly, the matriarchs assumed that each one of them would have three sons, so when Leah had a fourth she exclaimed, 'Now I will thank God!'"
    Bereishit Rabba 71:4
    There you have it, black on white. People are never grateful when they get what's coming to them. It's just that Yaakov felt that nothing was coming to him.

  2. While Yaakov's attitude was that God owes him nothing, Yaakov was no shmata (doormat). The clear message of the bulk of the parsha is that Yaakov will not allow Lavan to rip him off.

  3. I wrote, parenthetically:
    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”!
    By this I meant to suggest that God was well aware of Yaakov's tendency towards the "din" attribute of his father, and God therefore wanted to remind Yaakov that Avraham, the man of chesed, was also his father. (For an altogether different and far more radical explanation of why Yitzchok is not called Yaakov's father, see Moznayim LaTorah here.)

    This is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Yaakov had just completed a fourteen-year stint in yeshiva, cf. Rashi to 28:11 quoting B.R. 68:11. Yaakov's "yeshivish" din streak expresses itself when he confronts the shepherds in 29:7, a la R. Shimon bar Yochai right out of the cave. Hameivin Yavin.

    Despite God's gentle reminder, Yaakov was not prepared to let go of Yitzchak as his primary model. At the very end of the parsha, Lavan proposes that they take an oath in the names of the "God of Avraham, the God of Nachor, and the God of their father (Terach)" (31:53). Yaakov is obviously not going to take any oath in the name of the pagan gods of Nachor and Terach, but we would imagine that Yaakov would have no objection to the God of Avraham. However, "Yaakov swore by the Dread of Yitzchak his father" (ibid.) Once again, Yaakov asserts the primacy of din over chesed. (See, however, 31:42.)

    [Continue with part-three here.]

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