Giving thanks for our blessings

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob is on the move. Having just enraged his brother, Esau — stealing first his older brother’s birthright and then his blessing — he’s all but fleeing for his life, running toward his ancestral home. When he stops to rest for the night on his journey, he dreams a fantastic dream: A ladder is rooted on the ground with its top disappearing in the heavens, and angels of God going up and down on its rungs. And in this dream, Jacob receives the most incredible message of hope and comfort, the strongest reassurance for which one could possibly ask.

God stands alongside Jacob (maybe with a metaphoric arm around his shoulders, maybe whispering privately and intimately into Jacob’s ear) and God says, “Don’t worry. Everything in your life is going to be all right. You are going to be all right. In fact, everyone on the earth shall find blessing through you and your descendants. Remember, wherever you go I am with you. I will protect you; I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised.”


Wow! When Jacob wakes, he immediately sets up a pillar, and exclaims: “God was in this place, and I did not know.” Then Jacob vows, the first vow recorded in the Torah: “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 — then Adonai shall be my God.”

IF? THEN? How could Jacob possibly react to the generous divine promises he just received with such conditional devotion?

Does God really have to prove God’s self, so to speak, before we are obliged to offer praise and faith? Jacob’s response is pure chutzpah! And yet what an honest response — for perhaps Jacob doubts, not God’s abilities, but his own.

“God was in this place,” Jacob had just declared, “and I did not know.” Jacob questions, not that God will bless him in his life, but rather that he, himself, will take the time to acknowledge the many blessings he receives; that he will be careful enough to observe where his blessings come from. For isn’t this human nature, that too often we take our blessings for granted?

Through his vow, Jacob gives voice to an age-old truth — that we have a part in God’s Covenant. We have to stop — in joyous times, even more so in challenging times; on the dedicated days of Shabbat and Thanksgiving, and in the everyday moments that too easily fly by. We have to stop to reflect, to take note of the many gifts in our lives, to count our blessings of sustenance and freedom, to marvel at the strength we continually muster on our personal journeys in life.

As Jacob came to realize, God is in this place. Yet only when we stop to give thanks, can we truly know it.

Rabbi Stephanie Alexander serves Temple Beth El in Dubuque, Iowa, is an instructor with CAJE, and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.