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The Thanksgiving Jew

thank you.jpgThe Thanksgiving Jew

You may be surprised to hear that the word Jew does not appear in the five books of Moses. The Torah refers to our people as the Children of Israel, for we are the children of our patriarch Jacob who was given the additional name of Israel. Israel fathered twelve children who became the twelve tribes of Israel.

The name Jew comes from the name Judah, which means thanksgiving. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. As we read in this week’s Parsha:  

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah. [1]

Why then are all Jews called the by the name of just of one of the sons? Why are all the tribes referred to by the name of the tribe of Judah? What is it about thanksgiving that captures the essence of the children of Israel?

Thanksgiving is easier said than done.

We often look around and wonder why some of the people around us are so ungrateful? Why don't our children appreciate all that we do for them? Why does our spouse not show gratitude? Why do our co-workers take us for granted?

To understand why the feeling of gratitude is so elusive we must examine the Hebrew word for gratitude.

The Hebrew word for thanksgiving, “Hoddah”, also means to acknowledge, as in two people who have two different opinions yet one acknowledges that the other’s opinion is correct.

Why do these two seemingly distinct ideas, thanksgiving and acknowledgement, share the same word? What possible connection do they share?

The answer is that the key to being thankful is acknowledging the other's perspective. To illustrate: a mother does so much for her child. The greatest obstacle to the child feeling gratitude, is the child’s perspective that whatever mother does for him is because, as a mother, this is what she is required to do. After all, argues the child, isn't this her job? The only way the child can genuinely feel grateful is if he adopts her perspective; if he appreciates all of her sacrifices and all the time she lovingly dedicates to him. The same is true of a spouse. We can say thank you for the act of kindness. But to truly feel grateful we need to see the picture from the perspective of our spouse. We need to appreciate all the thought, feeling and energy that was invested in this one act. Only when we acknowledge and appreciate the other’s point of view - "Hodaah" - can I say - "Todah" - thank you.

To be a Jew, then, is to posses the ability see beyond the obvious, to acknowledge the other’s perspective and go beyond the limitations of one’s own perception To be a Jew is the ability to experience someone else’s pain as well as to rejoice in their happiness as if it were our own. To be a Jew is to acknowledge and accept the perspective of hope and joy even in the midst of great hardship.   

There is an ongoing and long standing dispute between the creation and the creator. Our perspective is that our life, health and success is due to our independent efforts, and that the only one we need to thank is ourselves. From G-d's perspective, however, the entire universe is being brought into existence every moment by the word of G-d. From his perspective the only true reality is the G-dly vitality within every created being.

The Jew has the ability to see the world from G-d’s perspective. To cultivate the point of view that focuses on the spiritual rather than on the physical. The Jew possess the gift of acknowledgement, which is why he or she can experience genuine thanksgiving. [2]



[1] Genesis 29:35

[2] Adapted from Lekutey Torah, Devarim 1a. 

Happiness vs. Ambition


Happiness vs. Ambition

The art of living a good life is the art of maintaining a balance between happiness and ambition. 

Happiness and ambition, while they are both important to our physical and mental well being, are contradictory feelings that, in some cases, can undermine each other. To be happy is to be content with one’s lot, while to be ambitious one must feel that what one has is not enough. To be happy one must feel satisfied while to be ambitious one must feel hungry. To feel happiness is to feel that there is no gap between what you have and what you want, while ambition is motivated by seeing the great gap between what you have already achieved and what remains to be achieved.  

The tension between happiness and ambition, between feeling close to one’s goals and distant from them, expresses itself in many other areas of life; one example is in the realm of education.

Say I want to motivate my daughter to tackle a new subject, study a new course of learning and take a test on advanced material. There are two methods I can use to inspire her. I can tell her that the test will not be too hard for her. I can remind her of her gift of intelligence and tell her that if she puts herself to it she will be able to achieve success. What I am doing for her is narrowing the gap between the way she perceives her abilities and the goal. I am telling her that the goal is closer to her than she realizes.

Another method of inspiration would be to do the exact opposite. The second option would be to widen the gap. I would emphasize to her that the subject material is more difficult and challenging than anything she has experienced in the past. I am cautioning her not to underestimate the daunting task ahead. I am reminding her of the awesomeness of the challenge at hand. I am doing so not in order to scare her away, on the contrary, I am emphasizing the distance of the task in order to inspire her to grow beyond her comfort zone and to outperform the effort she is used to investing. I am emphasizing the distance in order to encourage her to do what it takes to grow into the person who can undertake this challenge.  

These two paths, emphasizing the closeness and emphasizing the distance, were the two paths of our patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham embodied love. He taught people to develop a love for G-d. Love is only possible when someone feels a degree of closeness to the beloved. Abraham taught people to see that G-d loves them, to feel his closeness and to be inspired by the bond between the creator and his creation. Abraham taught people to rejoice and celebrate in their relationship with G-d.

Isaac embodied the attribute of awe. Isaac felt the intense unbridgeable gap between the finite creation and the infinite G-d. Isaac felt acutely that no matter how much one achieves, no matter how high one climbs on the ladder of holiness, he is still insignificant compared to the infinite. Isaac perceived the distance that exists between man and his creator. Yet the perception of distance encouraged not a feeling of sadness but rather a feeling of ambition. Feeling the distance encouraged the person to keep evolving and growing in their spiritual journey.

Which path is the right path?

To survive in this world we need both happiness and ambition. To enjoy a healthy relationship with G-d we need to experience both love and awe. We need to feel the comfort of G-d’s embrace as well as the ambition to keep climbing, to escape the finite and cling to the infinite.

To be a healthy Jew we must embody both the attribute of Abraham as well as the attribute of Isaac. We need to be spiritually happy and at the same time spiritually ambitious. 

Abraham the Landowner

Chevron.jpgAbraham the Landowner 

The first recorded real estate deal negotiated by a Jew appears in this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham sought to purchase a piece of land in order to bury his beloved wife Sarah.

What emerges from the transcript of the conversation between Abraham and the sellers, the children of Chet, is that the children of Chet had enormous respect for Abraham, they refer to him as “a prince of G-d”, they were happy to allow him to bury Sarah anywhere he would chose, including in the “the choicest of our graves”. Yet, while they were happy to gift the land to Abraham they were reluctant to sell any real estate to him. As the Torah relates:

And the sons of Chet answered Abraham, saying to him, "Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of our graves bury your dead. None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead."

Indeed, when Abraham identified the piece of land he wanted to purchase, the cave of Machpela, situated in the field of a man by the name of Ephron, the same attitude prevailed: Ephron did not want to sell the land, instead he offered to gift the field to Abraham free of charge. Only after Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay the full price did Ephron agree to sell the land for an astronomical sum.  

Why were the children of Chet and Ephron reluctant to sell to Abraham? Was it just a negotiating tactic to extract a higher price for the desired field?

Nachmanides, the great 13th century Biblical commentary, explains that the sale of the land to Abraham was a political statement, because, in that culture, owning a plot of land for burial was a symbol of permanent residence. The children of Chet considered owning a plot for burial to be a symbol of deep rooted connection to the land, they therefore would grant any sojourner an individual place for burial, but would only sell a burial plot to members of their own tribe. Thus selling land to Abraham for burial was an acknowledgement that the connection of Abraham and his family to the land was deep as well as eternal.

Like every story in the Torah, this story too has multiple layers. In addition to the political interpretation offered by Nachmanides there is also a philosophical interpretation which explains the reluctance of the children of Chet to sell land to Abraham, specifically because of the high esteem in which they held Abraham. 

The children of Chet had great respect for Abraham, and understood that he was a deeply spiritual person, who believed in, and was completely devoted to, an intangible, infinite G-d. They referred to him as “prince of G-d”, they were privileged to honor him and allow him to use any piece of land he desired. Yet they did not think it befitting for Abraham to actually own the land, because a title holder was granted the right to voice an opinion and have a vote on matters relevant to the local economy and everyday life. The children of Chet strongly believed that someone as intensely spiritual as Abraham should remain in the world of abstract ideas and not get involved in the tangible details of daily life and the local economy.   

Abraham insisted otherwise and he eventually persuaded the children of Chet to agree with him. Abraham explained to them that the sacred is not reserved for the house of worship, that holiness is not exclusive to the realm of ideas. Abraham taught that the calling of a Jew is to bring heaven down to earth, to infuse every aspect of life with spirituality. Abraham taught that a Jew must be a “landowner”. He or she must take ownership of the tangible earth and sanctify it with holiness and meaning. 

Too Much Testing?

test.jpgToo Much Testing?

The life of Abraham, the first Jew, seems to be a series of tests; indeed the Mishnah[1] states: “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all”. Abraham’s tests culminated, at the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, with the binding of Isaac. As the Torah says: 

And it came to pass after these things, that G-d tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham," and he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you."

Why was Abraham continuously tested?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the word “test” is: 

a means of testing: such as

(1) :something (such as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group

(2) :a procedure, reaction, or reagent used to identify or characterize a substance or constituent

A conventional test, then, is a means of learning something about the person or object being tested. Presumably G-d, the knower of all things, knew the magnitude of love and the depth of commitment in Abraham’s heart, why then did G-d need to test Abraham?     

The answer lies within the multiple meanings of the single Hebrew word “Nes”, which is the root of the word “Nisayon”, the Hebrew word for test.

The Hebrew word for test, Nes, has more than one meaning. A “Nes” also means a banner, as in the verse “I will raise my banner”[2]. A test, then, includes more than measuring the qualities of the subject of the test. A test is also raising a banner, displaying and showing the world, the amazing qualities of the one being tested. Thus, the second meaning of the word “Nes”, the root word for test, informs us that G-d tested Abraham in order to display to all the world Abraham’s great commitment to G-d.

There is, however, another layer of depth in a test.

In addition to “test” and “raising a banner”, the word “Nes” has one more meaning: “Nes” is also a miracle. What possible connection can there be between a test and a miracle?

There are two words for “test” in Hebrew: “Bechinah” and “Nisayon”. “Bechinah” is used for tests such as those offered in school, where the test is designed to determine how much the student knows. “Bechinah”, then, gives insight into the ability of the student. “Nisayon” on the other hand, the second form of test, shares the same root word as miracle, because the purpose of this form of test is not to determine the ability of the person being tested, but rather it is to see if the test itself, the obstacle and struggle, could propel the person to grow beyond his or her natural ability. The test offers an opportunity for the person to perform a miracle, to achieve that which was thought to be impossible and to grow into something greater.[3]

As a wise man[4] once said: ordinary teachers test students to find out what they know, excellent teachers test students so that the students will discover not only how much they know but also what they can become.  

The test of Abraham then was not merely a test to measure his commitment to G-d (“Nisayon” as in test), and not only to demonstrate his commitment to G-d to the world (“Nisayon” as in raising a banner) but, most importantly, it was a test to allow Abraham to break out of his own personality constraints, and become something he never thought possible (“Nisayon” as in miracle).

The story of Abraham’s test is the story of the journey of each and every soul. The Kabbalists teach that the soul’s descent from it’s place in the tranquility of heaven to the chaos here on earth, is, first and foremost, a test for the soul. The descent is designed to test the soul, to see how strong its connection is to G-d, to see whether the soul remains true to itself in the face of tremendous challenge and temptation, to see whether or not the soul has what it takes to overcome the spiritual darkness of the world and transform it to light.  

Yet, just as with the test of Abraham, the test of the soul is not merely for the purpose of discovering the existing properties of the soul. The descent into this world is the soul's opportunity to experience the miracle. The test that the descent presents, raises the banner and demonstrates to the soul and to the world, that by being presented with and then overcoming the obstacles and darkness of the world, one can achieve the miracle of exponential spiritual growth, On this earth, one can achieve a bond with G-d that is far greater, far deeper, and far more profound than is possible when the soul is in heaven.   


[1] Avos 5:3.  

[2] Isaiah 29:22.

[3] See Malbim on Genesis 22:1.

[4] My dear friend, Rabbi Levi Mendelow of Chabad of New Canaan, CT. 

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