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Vayetze: November 17, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

At the very beginning of our Parsha, Jacob, after spending the night alone in the desert, after a dream about angels accompanying him on his journey, makes a strange vow before God. He says, “If God remains with me, If God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God and this stone which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that God gives me, I will set aside a tithe.”

What is Jacob asking for in this prayer? Is Jacob being grateful for the blessings in Jacob’s life, or is Jacob trying to make God do what Jacob wants? Will Jacob only worship God if God gives him all the good things that Jacob desires? Is this a proper prayer? Are we allowed to bargain with God? Everyone believes in God and asks God for favors when we are in dire need. What is our responsibility to God and what is God’s responsibility to us as we live the regular course of our lives?

To be clear, Judaism has no problem with us asking God for help. The Amidah that we recite on weekdays is full of petitions that we place before God. We ask God for wisdom, for forgiveness, for healing, for food, for justice, for good government, for a total of 19 different requests. Our early morning service has us asking God to give us all the elements of a good day, keeping us healthy and strong and giving us opportunities to learn and grow. We are dependent on God for so much in our lives. It is appropriate to ask God to help us live our lives successfully.

But my teacher Rabbi Neil Gilman would always remind us students that God is not Santa Claus. God is not some jolly giant in heaven that doles out gifts to all who ask. My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula notes that in Shel Silverstein’s book, the Giving Tree, the Tree keeps giving and the man keeps taking. The tree remains happy, but you have to wonder why? Can anyone be so altruistic that they can give all of themselves to someone else and not expect anything in return? Is it possible for someone to keep coming back for more and more and never be satisfied until they have taken all that they can get? What kind of a relationship is that?

On the other hand, what do we mortals have that God could possibly need? The whole earth belongs to God. What can we hope to offer that God could use? I understand the concept of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” as a fair system of barter, but what do we have to barter with God? What is there to build a relationship on if God does not need us at all?

To begin with, God does need us to do the tasks that God has assigned to us. We are the hands and feet that God needs to improve this world. There are great flaws in creation and it is our role to repair those flaws. We need to see the problems of life around us and do what we can to fix what is wrong. If there are people who are hungry, we need to help feed them. If there are people who are in need of clothing, we need to clothe them. If there is someone who needs a helping hand, we need to lend our hands to help. This is the reason we were created; to help God fulfill God’s purpose in the world. Therefore, if we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, then God should be there to help us fulfill our duties. How can we help others if we need help ourselves? How can we feed others if we are hungry? How can we lend a hand if we need someone’s hand?

It is easy to think that there should be a one to one correspondence to the things that we do and the things that God does for us, and yet that does not fill the entire picture. Is the only reason we do things for God because we expect something in return? What is missing from the prayer of Jacob is a sense of gratitude. God has already done much for Jacob and all that Jacob has done has not been either kind or considerate. Jacob has cheated his brother twice, tricked his father into giving him a blessing and has tried to con his way to being successful. Now he thinks he is bargaining with God, even though Jacob has nothing to bargain with. If God makes Jacob successful, what is Jacob really promising to give back to God?

Jewish tradition teaches that we have reasons to recite 100 blessings a day. Each blessing is a note of thanks to God for doing something on our behalf. Our religion teaches us that there are no less than 100 reasons to thank God every day, and probably more. It is an interesting exercise. Take a few sheets of paper and try writing down 100 reasons why we should be thankful to God. It is a little hard at the beginning and about a quarter of the way through we have to really stop and think but by the time we get beyond 50 reasons to thank God, the reasons come to us so fast the it is easy to think of way more than 100 reasons to be grateful.

One of the things that we often forget as we go about our lives every day, is how much we depend on the goodness of others to get on with our life. If everyone in the world was selfish, how would it be possible to drive a car? How often do we depend on other drivers to let us in, to forgive our mistakes and to make room for us on the road? If everyone in the world told lies, then how would it be possible to get through the day. If you asked for directions, you would have no idea where you might end up. If you asked the price of an item, you may discover that the price is far higher than you were told. If someone promised to show up and do some work for you, could you rely on them to show up on time and do the work? … Oh wait, maybe that’s not a good example!

It always amazes me to see how two simple words, “Thank You”, acknowledging how we depend on others, makes such a difference. To say simply and honestly, “thank you” is to give back when someone has done something for you. It acknowledges our debt to them for their kindness and it shows them that we respect their actions on our behalf. And there is even more. When we say thank you to someone, we acknowledge their presence and their meaning in life. Think about it. When a waiter brings food to the table at a restaurant, just saying thank you means that he is not some servant who is waiting on you, but he is someone whose work you value and appreciate. When you thank a waitress for filling your glass of water, don’t be surprised if she keeps coming back to fill it whenever she can. The fact that you noticed them and the work they are doing makes all the difference.

I once knew of a man who wrote “thank you” at the bottom of every check he wrote to pay his bills. In each case he found something to be grateful for with the power company, the water company and the mortgage company. Once we begin to see how many ways we are grateful to others, there really is no end to how many times a day we can say “Thanks”. It gives us a whole new outlook on life that we no longer want what we think we deserve, but we become grateful for all that we have. We see what we own rather than see what we are missing. It is a very different outlook on life.

Thanksgiving is coming; the one day we stop to consider how grateful we are for others in our life and for God’s presence in our life. We know that this feeling should carry over into every day of our lives, but at least we have this one day. Of course, we are thankful for our families and for our health. Of course, we are thankful for our food and clothing. But expand the picture. Think of all the people out in the world who help our families be together; the pilots, the gas station attendants, the road crews, the engineers who planned the infrastructure. The people who planted the food, who fed the animals, who brought the food to the market, who packaged the food, who check you out in the supermarket. Those who harvested plants, spun the wool into thread, wove the threads into clothing, brought the clothing to market, sold it to you or delivered it to your door. And while we are at it, who are all the people who built the home you are in, the furniture you are sitting on, the carpets under your feet and even the paint on your walls. And then there is God who created it all.

Jacob will learn, through the difficulties of his life, to appreciate all that God does for him. His life will be a struggle, not the easy life he thinks it will be at the beginning of our parsha. Although he will not understand the twists and turns of his life until his old age, he comes to trust God, and to thank God, for the blessings that he already has. We don’t have to wait until our most senior years to understand the blessings of God. We only have to pause and say a blessing, perhaps a Shehechiyanu, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and bringing us to Thanksgiving this year.

May God always bless us and may we always appreciate the many blessings in our life as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, November 17, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779