Let us not take our blessings for granted

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

The American tradition of gathering with family and friends to share a meal and give thanks dates to 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and Native Americans shared a feast in honor of the successful harvest. 

In 1789, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States and, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. However, while Thanksgiving is a treasured celebration for so many, we know that giving thanks should not be limited to a single day. 

Giving thanks is a daily obligation in Jewish tradition, which Parashat Vayishlach helps us better understand.

In our Parashah, as Jacob returns home and prepares to meet his brother Esau after more than 30 years apart, he offers this prayer: “I have been made small from all of the kindness and all of the truth which You have done for [me]” (Genesis 32:11). He continues to ask God to deliver him from the hands of Esau, whom he fears.

While Jacob’s life during the intervening years hadn’t always been easy, the Gaon of Vilna understood Jacob’s statement as an expression of gratitude: “In other words, ‘I have never had enough merit to obtain all the mercy which [God] showed me, and [God] nevertheless gave everything to me.’ ” 

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Jacob didn’t take his blessings for granted. He knew that God’s past blessing was not a guarantee of future rewards. The tendency to understand goodness as an entitlement is natural when we always seem to be on the receiving end of goodness. Jacob reminds us of the need for gratitude rather than entitlement. Such an orientation toward gratitude requires intention. 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches us: “Gratitude is rooted in remembrance. Therefore, we must make a conscious effort to recall how others have helped us; if we don’t do this, we will forget. … As a corrective against forgetting, try each day to remember at least one favor or kindness extended to you.” 

Jacob saw each of his blessings as a gift. The favor granted to him created an assumption of future munificence. Recognizing the generosity of God and of other people helps us all understand our place. It puts our life in prospective and helps us understand that while we all seek goodness and blessing, such largess is not given. Rather, we must cherish every virtuous act with gratitude. 

This Thanksgiving, as we gather with family and friends to enjoy turkey and other staples of the season, let us not take our blessings for granted or treat them as though we are entitled. Rather, let us commit ourselves to make a conscious effort to remember how others have helped us, and give thanks.