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Vayishlakh 5782 - Gratitude for Having Enough Right Now

November 20, 2021

We, the Jewish people, practice a tradition laden with prayers for gratitude. We have fixed blessings to say thank you to God every time we see a rainbow, eat a bite of food, or wake up in the morning. Especially on Shabbat, when we traditionally ask for nothing but peace, we have ample time to practice gratitude for what we have and to visualize a mindset in which we lack nothing. While another day focused on gratitude, especially a day with delicious food and beloved family, is always welcome, the Jewish tradition already provides us a weekly Thanksgiving Day.

Of course, Judaism also provides us space to ask for more. Although our weekday Amidah - our standing silent prayer -  begins and ends with praise and thanks, the middle section includes requests for wisdom, forgiveness, success, and health. Judaism recognizes that we do not always have everything we need. Instead, we must maintain that balance of gratitude for what we do have and striving for what we lack.

Early in Parshat Vayishlakh, Jacob gives us a framework to measure when we have what we need and when it is time to ask, pray, and strive for more. As Jacob meets his brother for the first time in twenty years, he tells Esau, יש לי כל - I have everything (Genesis 33:11). Although his statement sounds simple in English, it’s a little more complicated in Hebrew. We would expect Jacob to say, יש לי הכל , with an extra letter in front of the word kol, all or everything. Jacob’s statement, then, is both incomplete and telling. It is not that Jacob has everything, but rather, that he has everything he needs right now. We know that decades later, Jacob will describe his life as מעט ורעים, “few and bad” (Gen. 47:9), and yet, right now, he lacks nothing. Even a life that is bitter in the long term has those moments of perfection. At multiple points a day, our liturgy asks us to pay attention and to ask, do I have enough right now, even if just for a moment? Once I have enough, can I pause, reflect, and accept rather than chasing more?

In his interpretation a few verses later, Rashi presents an example of a definition for what is enough. As Jacob travels to the city of Shhem, the Torah describes him as שלם, complete or whole (Gen. 33:18). Rashi explains:

[Jacob is] whole in body, in that the limp [he received from his fight with an angel] has healed. He is financially whole, in that he lacks nothing, even after giving a hefty gift to his brother. And he is whole in his Torah, that he did not forget any of his Torah learning during the time he spent in the house of Lavan.

With Rashi’s explanation, having enough must mean health and access to healthcare. It must mean having enough money to put food on the table and a roof over our families’ heads. And enough must mean having the time and safety to preserve our Jewish values and traditions, to act according to what we believe God desires from us. As Jacob has enough with each of these gifts, perhaps we, too, have enough with that assurance of health, finances, and spiritual well-being. While each of us may have a different list of absolute needs, we each can define a point at which we no longer need to ask or fight for more for ourselves. And we practice living in that world of enough on Shabbat and maybe even on Thanksgiving. 

For all of us here, there will be times in our lives in which we do not have enough. In last year’s d’var Torah on this very parashah, I taught the importance of seeking and accepting help, and I stand by that teaching. We define the moments when we have enough so that we can identify those times when we need more or need differently. Just as Jacob’s few and bad years have their moments of wholeness, even the most joyous life has its times of need. It is not wrong or negative to ask and to strive for what we need, or even, for what we know we want. Even in those moments of lack, we can rest from our anxiety, from our pushing and striving by reminding ourselves of what we do have here, of the good we are fighting to preserve.

As we celebrate that once-a-week exercise in gratitude and as we approach that once-a-year gathering with the people and the food, perhaps the laughter and the games, for which we express our thanks, we revisit Modim, a prayer that we traditionally recite three times a day in our Amidah:

We are thankful to you, that you are Adonai our God and the God of our ancestors throughout all time. You are the Rock of our lives, the Shield of our salvation in every generation. We thank You and praise You for our lives that are in Your hand, for our souls that are in Your charge, for Your miracles that daily attend us, and for Your wonders and gifts that accompany us, evening, morning, and noon. You are good, Your mercy everlasting; You are compassionate, Your kindness never-ending. We have always placed our hope in You. For all these blessings we shall ever praise and exalt You. May every living creature thank You and praise You faithfully, God of our deliverance and our help. Praised are You, Adonai - your name is the good, and it is wonderful to thank you. 

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784