With the all the ongoing intractability of COVID, the state of the economy, the deepening impact of the climate conference, and the rise in anti-Semitism, the period we are living in is a time of great anxiety for so many people. 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, and now you must save me. I deserve it; I am entitled.” 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 humility – a deep appreciation for all that is good in our lives and a profound sense of awe: “What did I do to deserve all this.” This can be unhealthy if it translates into, or emerges from, low self-esteem, a sense that we are never deserve anything good that happens to us. We should feel good, not bad, about our blessings. And if we couple this with humility, with a health sense of “what did I do to deserve this?,” then gratitude becomes possible. Gratitude is what happens when we stop focusing on what we don’t have and begin to appreciate how blessed we are for what we do have.
Sefat Emet draws out attention to the end of Yaakov’s expression of gratitude: “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.
Let us use this Thanksgiving to begin to cultivate this orientation. In my family, we go around the table and ask everyone to share, sincerely, what things they are most thankful for this year. And going forward, even as we continue to struggle with the challenges that our world brings, let us continue to nurture a feeling a gratitude, and express our thanks to those who have given us so much, and ultimately to God, the source of all our blessings.