With all the tragic events occurring around the world, it is a time of great anxiety. And yet, with Thanksgiving, we must take a moment to reflect on the meaning of thankfulness. What should we be thankful for? How can we cultivate thankfulness in ourselves? Feeling grateful for all that we have received is not only morally and religiously correct, it also has tremendous benefits. As John Tierney wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, “Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.”
The theme of gratitude appears front and center in parashat Vayishlach as well. Yaakov, fearing his impending encounter with Esav, turns to God in prayer. He begins by acknowledging all that God has given him: “I am not worthy of the least of all the kindnesses, and of all the faithfulness which You have shown Your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps” (Breishit, 32:10-11). We understand why Yaakov prays to be saved from Esav, but what is the point of beginning with this expression of gratitude?
The answer can be found in the opening words: “Katonti,” “I am not worthy.” Yaakov can choose how he will approach God: He can come with a claim, or he can come with a request. He can say, “God, you made a promise to protect me. I’ve been Your faithful servant, and now you must save me. I deserve it; I am entitled to it.” Or, he can say, “God, I am not worthy of all that I have received from You, or of the promise You have made me. But You in Your kindness have chosen to bless me and to make this promise. Although I am undeserving, please continue to bestow your kindness upon me.” Yaakov, of course, chooses the second. He chooses to approach God with gratitude rather than entitlement, and his prayers are answered.
There is a theological underpinning to this approach: How can anything we ever do as imperfect, created beings be deserving of God’s blessing? How can we ever truly live up to our obligations? And how can we “deserve” anything from God when all that we have – our lives, our food, our clothes, the very air that we breathe – has been given to us by God?
But theological issues aside, there is a key lesson here about gratitude. Gratitude becomes possible when we forgo our sense of entitlement and embrace a sense of unworthiness for all that is good in our lives, not unworthiness in the sense of low self-esteem, which is never good, but as a profound sense of awe: “What did I do to deserve all this?” Gratitude becomes possible when we stop focusing on what we don’t have and begin to appreciate how blessed we are for what we do have.
How was Yaakov able to feel this way? Sefat Emet points to the second part of the verse: “for with my staff alone I passed over this Jordan.” This event occurred twenty years earlier, but it is still fresh in Yaakov’s mind. “It is no small thing,” says Sefat Emet, “that a successful person will remember what little he had twenty years prior.” By focusing on what we didn’t have in the past rather than on what we don’t have in the present, or alternatively, on what others don’t have that we do, we will truly experience all that we have as a blessing.
Is what we have a blessing from God? If we perceive it to be so, it truly will become so. But how can we cultivate this mode of perception in our lives? Experts suggest developing a number of habits. These might include making gentle reminders to ourselves about what we are grateful for; starting with our senses – experiencing and savoring the smells, tastes, and sounds of the world; or keeping a gratitude journal to record the things that happen every day for which we are grateful, even if very briefly.
Interestingly, all of these are embedded in our religious practice. Sefat Emet notes that our daily recollection of the Exodus from Egypt should serve as a constant reminder of our own Exodus moments, those times in our lives when we too started “just with a staff,” when we started with nothing in Lavan’s house and emerged into a better place. And the Shmoneh Esrei that follows this recitation is nothing if not an acknowledgement of all that God has given and continues to give us. Throughout the day we also give ourselves gentle reminders when we stop to appreciate what we are eating, smelling, or seeing. We make blessings before we eat; we make blessings before we smell; we make blessings when we see beautiful things.
Of course, as we know, it doesn’t really work that way. We have over-halakhicized these acts, giving so much attention to all the technical details of saying Shema, of prayer, and of blessings that the only values we inculcate from them are obedience and the importance of following the rules. If we can add God back into these acts we can imbue them with religious significance and make them into moments of katonti. They daily acts will become moments in which all we have in the world, all we are in the world, is transformed into a gift, a blessing.
But Yaakov’s gratitude to God is only half the story. He was able to say katonti to God, to acknowledge his own shortcomings, his dependency, and even his mortal fear of Esav, but Yaakov was not able to say such things to anyone else. Never having received his father’s full love or attention, and having been driven away from his home at an early age, Yaakov was a loner. He always had to do everything, and he would do it alone. Yaakov never learned to reach out to others for help. Sure, he called Rachel and Leah to the field, but he didn’t genuinely ask for their counsel. He simply needed them to agree to a decision that he had already made.
Yaakov never let anyone see his vulnerabilities. He cloaked himself in Esav’s clothes – the clothes of the strong, independent, fearless hunter – so that no one could see him underneath, the not always strong, not always confident herder of sheep. Consider his unfeeling response to Rachel when she complains to him about her barrenness: “Am I in God’s stead, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Breishit, 30:2). The Rabbis were rightfully shocked: “Is this how you respond to those in distress?!” (Breishit Rabbah). But what made him respond this way? It was the challenge he found in being present for another person who was feeling and expressing her vulnerability. He could not expose this part of himself to others, so he could not relate when others opened themselves to him in this way: “You have to be strong. If you have any issues, talk to God like I do. Don’t turn to others for help.”
To project such strength is great when everything works out like it does in the beginning of the parasha; Yaakov’s strategy – his actions and no one else’s – save them from Esav. But what about the times when he can’t handle it all himself? At those times, he is unable to turn to others, and he is paralyzed. Consider. Yaakov’s daughter Dina is raped by Shechem, and he does nothing. He hears, and he is silent. He waits for his sons to return, not to consult with them, but because he is paralyzed. When they take over tragedy ensues, and all Yaakov can do is lash out. Where was his voice earlier, when it was needed?
Reuven sleeps with Bilhah after Rachel dies. What does the verse say? “And Israel heard.” And then? Nothing. Yaakov is not able to handle this alone. Does he turn to anyone for help? No. He remains in silent paralysis. Yosef is presumed dead, and Yaakov’s whole family attempts to console him. But they have nothing to offer him; he is committed to being alone in his suffering. Better to suffer alone than to let people see you in weakness, to let people see that you need them.
This was Yaakov. Va’yivater Yaakov livado. At the end of the day, with all his wives, children, and sheep, he is left alone. He has chosen to be alone. He must be strong. He must do it all himself. Perhaps this was the lesson of the struggle with the mysterious man and the wounding of the sciatic nerve. You can’t overcome every struggle alone, Yaakov is being told. You have shortcomings as we all do. You, too, have your Achilles heel, your gid ha’nashe. If you can acknowledge when you need help and can turn to others when you need them, if you can allow your limp to show and can let it be a part of you, then you can truly become complete. You will not have to be Yaakov in Esav’s clothing. You can be Yisrael.
We must all work to learn the lesson of katonti, to accept that we are not expected to do everything on our own. We must not only accept gifts from God, we must also allow ourselves to accept gifts from others, to ask others for help. Doing so is not a sign of weakness but a sign of maturity. It will allow us to succeed. Asking for and receiving help from others can turn a culture of competition into a culture of collaboration. If we can do this, we will live each day in a state of gratitude for what God has given us, and for what we receive every day from others in our lives: our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, and our coworkers. If we can do this, we will turn our lives into a blessing.