I don’t host much. I live in a studio apartment, with a tiny table/desk and most of my meals are cooked on a George Foreman grill . Clearly, I haven’t hosted anything as grand as a thanksgiving dinner. I can only imagine how running around, buying groceries, spending the day cooking, and trying to accommodate allergies, dietary restrictions, and organic preferencing can drive you crazy. But then on top of all that work, thought, and time spent, to have a guest complain about anything… what a chutzpah! But chances are I’ve been that complainer more often than not.
Though I usually don’t talk much about secular holidays on this blog, Thanksgiving seems to make its way into both Marc and my posts each year. Gratitude is such an essential character trait, many source view it as the key to happiness. If you don’t appreciate what you have, you’ll never be able to appreciate anything new for very long. However, there is a moment in this week’s Torah portion Vayeitzei that seems to be a complete perversion of gratitude. One of a magnitude that blows the Thanksgiving lack of consideration (mentioned above) out of the water.
The broad events of the Torah portion are as follows; Yaakov has fled from his home to his uncle Lavan’s town. As soon as Yaakov arrives he sees the beautiful Rachel who he falls madly in love with. Turns out Rachel is Lavan’s daughter (yes, she and Yaakov are cousins). Yaakov agrees to work for Lavan for 7 years in exchange for the daughter’s hand in marriage.
After those 7 years, it’s choppah time and Yaakov marries and beds his bride to be. Or so he thinks. Turns out in the morning light, the woman in his marriage bed isn’t Rachel but her older sister, Leah. Skipping some drama in the story, Yaakov ends up marrying Rachel too.
As the years go by, Leah pops out baby after baby (4 at this point) while Rachel remains childless. Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, to Yaakov in marriage and Bilhah has two sons. Leah has the same idea and has her handmaid, Zilpah, marry Yaakov, and she has two more sons.
At this point Yaakov has 8 sons, none of which were from Rachel. Then in Bereishis 30:14, the following scene happens;
Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found dudaim* in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Now give me some of your son’s dudaim.” And she said to her, “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband? Now [you wish] also to take my son’s dudaim?” So Rachel said, “Therefore, he shall sleep with you tonight as payment for your son’s dudaim.”
*note: Dudaim is a flower of some kind. Some translate it as violets, others as jasmine or mandrakes. Some commentators note that it may have been an aphrodisiac or fertility aid.
Okay… so that’s an awkward conversation.
So what is Leah’s deal here? Yaakov was promised to Rachel. But through their father’s guile, Leah ends up getting married first. Then on top of that, Leah has the vast majority of Yaakov’s children while Rachel is left with nothing.
To compound the matter, according to the Midrash… Yaakov suspected Lavan might try to trick him, so before the wedding, Yaakov told Rachel a secret sign she should make under the choopah so he will know it is her and not anyone else. But because Rachel didn’t want her sister Leah to be embarrassed publicly, she told Leah the secret sign.
Because of Rachel, Leah has the first wife status, 4 sons, and was spared supreme embarrassment on her wedding night. How could Leah have such ingratitude towards her sister?
The rabbi known as the Bnei Yissaschar asks this very question, but then gives a tremendous explanation. According to the Bnei Yissaschar’s teaching, not only did Rachel give her sister the secret signs, she didn’t inform Leah that Yaakov had been promised to Rachel at all! She let her sister believe that Yaakov wanted to marry Leah so she could have a joyous wedding night.
Leah had been very distressed because she was destined to marry Yaakov’s wicked brother, Esav. Allowing Leah’s wedding to Yaakov to continue, Rachel not only spared Leah her embarrassment, she spared her the anxiety of being married to a wicked person. However, Rachel thought that she would have to marry Esav in Leah’s place and was prepared to make that sacrifice. It was only later she learned she would get to marry Yaakov as well.
The crucial point is that Rachel did all of this kindness and sacrifice in such a way that Leah never knew about it.
The Giving of Thanksgiving
Gifts by their nature create a feeling of debt, if not an outright literal one. No matter how much good will it is given with, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and we all know someone who owes us a favor. That’s why in Judaism, giving anonymously is ranked among the highest forms of tzedaka. But what is higher than giving anonymously is giving in a way that the person doesn’t even know they’re receiving a gift. That’s the way Rachel gave to her sister.
As I said above, it is a tremendous thing to have gratitude. But as we reflect and appreciate what we have this holiday, it would do us well to focus on the giving as much as the thanking. And though we may not be able to give on the level of Rachel, willing to give with such modesty that she might even get reproached for it, it would be good to make sure when we give, we do so with as few strings attached as possible.