Thanksgiving, a Privilege: Commentary on Parashat Vayyetze 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


When my family splits the middle matzah at our Passover seder, I catch myself each year misteaching that we will take “the bigger half” and hide it as our afikoman. I am almost correct. Tradition compels us to hide the bigger portion of that cracked matzah, but—when I think back to middle school math—I recall that two halves of anything must be the same size as each other. If I can identify the biggest of two halves, then I have divided wrong.

I am grateful that my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations have always been accompanied by a sense of security in having sufficient (usually a surplus of) food, clothing, and shelter. This is not a given. We humans are diverse in how we earn money, spend money, inherit money, or lose money. Some economic decisions are in our control, and some financial matters are out of our hands. In a world where wealth is not equally distributed among its inhabitants, I happen to have been born into fortunate circumstances.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports that more than 1 out of 10 American households experienced food insecurity last year. Having a home at all constitutes yet another measure of luck; as demonstrated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 1/500 of the American population experienced homelessness last year. I never chose to enter this world poor or rich; my body and my soul happened to be given at an early age what I consider a good portion.

Our biblical matriarch Leah, tricked into a loveless marriage with Jacob (Genesis 29:16–27), was handed a bad lot in life. Daily living was so miserable at home that “וַיַּ֤רְא יְהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־שְׂנוּאָ֣ה לֵאָ֔ה” (“Adonai saw that Leah was hated”) (Genesis 29:31). At the end of four subsequent births in the four subsequent verses of this week’s torah portion, Vayyetze—Genesis 29:35 shares that Leah, through wordplay, chose a name for her fourth and final son יהודה (Yehudah, “Judah”) (Yehudah—יהודה). The name Yehudah emphasizes the word “אוֹדֶ֣ה” (odeh, “I thank”) in Leah’s declaration: הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה (happa’am odeh et Adonai, “this time, I thank Adonai”). The French commentator Rashi (1028–1105) reimagines Leah stating, “הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה שֶׁנָּטַלְתִּי יוֹתֵר מֵחֶלְקִי; מֵעַתָּה יֵשׁ לִי לְהוֹדוֹת” (“This time, I thank [Adonai], for I have earned more than my lot; henceforth, I must thank [Adonai]”).

One must question Rashi’s belief that Leah had acquired more than she was apportioned. Did Leah—one of Jacob’s four co-parents—by virtue of giving birth to four sons (one third of the 12 tribes), truly earn more than she deserved? Did she overperform in her goals as a matriarch or outdo her utility to the family? It is true that she birthed more sons than Jacob’s beloved Rachel, eventually a mother to two sons (Genesis 35:24), but is there something unseemly or excessive about the few accomplishments we can attribute to Leah?

It feels wrong to me to accuse Leah of having too much of anything. Leah’s ability to offer gratitude, however, may have come from—not a sense of excess and luxury—but a humble pride in whatever good she had amassed in her life. Her predisposition to be thankful, even if there may have been little reason to be thankful, resonates with an adage taught by the sage Shim’on Ben Zoma (1st–2nd century C.E.) in Mishnah, Avot 4:1: “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.” (“Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with their lot”).

On October 3, 1863—two years into, and two years before the end of, the American Civil War—President Abraham Lincoln, in his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” reminded a war-torn people how favorable their lives were:


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies… Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry… have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship… Population has steadily increased… [T]he country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom…


From this optimistic angle, offered in a time of severe losses his young nation, Lincoln urged “fellow citizens… to… observe the last Thursday of November… as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Despite Lincoln’s positivity, the President understood that Thanksgiving would not be an entirely easy day; he advised that we not grow numb to the serious needs that surround us:


I recommend… that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings… commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation… (Abraham Lincoln, “A Proclamation For a Day of Thanksgiving, Praise, and Prayer.”)


Lincoln cooked up one heavy Thanksgiving recipe—a blend of sweet unfiltered gratitude, mixed with a hot dose of pleading for a better tomorrow. Noble and holy as Lincoln’s dream of Thanksgiving as a prayer-centric holiday may be, a Jewish approach to Thanksgiving calls upon us not only to invite God to our tables but to act towards a world that feels God’s beneficence. We feed others at our tables when we can and—even better—we nourish strangers and neighbors in need. Our matriarch Leah was admirably pietistic; she possessed little, yet she thanked God wholeheartedly. Our job is not to command others to be grateful for small lots in their lives; rather, it is our responsibility to work towards a world where everyone can express gratitude with ease.

Nobody should have to work hard on their own to find something inside them for which they can thank God. To cultivate gratitude, we have to gift to those around us reasons to be satisfied. We might live in a world where—no matter how hard we try to crack the matzah in half—we always end up with one portion bigger than the other. We live in a world where some children are born among the haves and some are born among the have-nots. That might never change. Still, we accept neither the status quo nor the luck of the draw as the final factors that determine who can find enough joy to be thankful. As a community, we have resources to share—so that we can affirm, support, and gladden those around us.

May we not only have a happy Thanksgiving; let us give one too.




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