Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving and the Gift of Doubt

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 29, 2019 / 1 Kislev 5780

Summary: Rabbi Kosak shares two pieces of Torah that provide guidance to people who find that holidays like Thanksgiving bring up difficult emotions they’d rather not face.

I’ve been behind the times and hadn’t realized that a new American ritualized holiday had come into existence. Apparently, “Friendsgiving” has been gaining momentum over the past number of years. Different reasons are offered for this new occasion, but without a doubt, one reason is that people found that it was less stressful to celebrate with friends than gathering with their blood relatives on Thanksgiving. In hindsight, it is surprising it’s taken so long to develop. Why?

A friend showed me a passage in a book over the Thanksgiving break. Entitled “Renewed Each Day,” it is co-written by a man in recovery and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. This book follows the weekly Torah reading, but breaks each parashah into a daily meditation. The Thursday of Thanksgiving this year fell in parshat Toldot and the episode of Jacob and Esau. It couldn’t be more apropos to the dynamics of many households at this season.

They write, “Less than the thinness of a membrane separated Esau and Jacob in the womb, yet their struggle we are told, began even then. Sometimes, the familiarity and close quarters of family life can breed contempt…There is jealousy, competition, insecurity, and favoritism…Yes, Isaac loved Esau more, and Rebecca loved Jacob more, and maybe that was wrong. But it’s also the way it was. In forgiving others, we learn to forgive ourselves.”

It is amazing how powerful the forces of insecurity and favoritism can be. Sometimes they can motivate us to greatness—our insecurities can themselves be a motor for ambition, so that we work hard to overcome the wound we carry within. Other times, that insecurity can poison our capacity to connect with ourselves, others or God.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe (Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1800-1854), in his work the “Mei HaShiloach,” portrayed these dynamics as they played out between Jacob and Esau, and their father, Isaac.

According to Genesis 25:28, “Yitzchak loved Esau because of the taste of the meat he would trap with his mouth.” This is a strange formulation, to state that Esau would trap meat with his mouth. To help resolve the peculiar phrasing, an ancient Midrashic source (Bereshit Rabba 63:100 explains that Esau “would deceive his father (by asking him complicated ritual questions such as) how can one tithe salt and straw.” That is “hunting with the mouth.”

What the midrash is suggesting is that Esau trapped his father by pretending that he was a pious and scholarly individual. In a world where siblings can’t believe that parents can love all their children equally, and in a world where sometimes parents do have favorites, Esau pretends to be someone he is not to receive the love he so desperately craves.

According to the Ishbitzer, Isaac was never duped by this ruse. Rather, sensing his son’s deep and unfilled need, Isaac prayed to God to give Esau more wisdom—to help turn Esau into the very person he pretended to be. There is something quite touching in this reading. The father is not fooled, rather, he feels greater love for his child precisely because his son’s vulnerability and insecurity are readily apparent.

We are also left with a new question. Did Isaac pray to God so as to not embarrass or humiliate Esau, or did he turn to God because of his general tendency to passivity and the difficulty he had communicating more directly with his family? Before we continue, let’s be clear that I am not faulting Isaac here. Most of us have a lot of Isaac in us. Most of us turn away from direct communication at least some of the time. Isaac is us, and we are Isaac.

The Ishbitzer continues by imagining that Jacob is also aware of what Esau is doing. ‘What need do I have of this. If I am worthy in the sight of God, God will cause the heart of my father to pray for me.” Esau’s way was not honest in Jacob’s view, for this way needs clarification (“birrur”), for who can say if this indirect way will be accepted, and perhaps he is only doing it to deceive. Since Jacob had separated himself from all uncertainty and doubt, his heart trusted only in God.”

If the Ishbitzer’s reading ended there, we might think, “ok, that’s nice for Jacob, he was at this high spiritual level such that he didn’t suffer from our all too human doubts. So he can take the high road. But what about our doubts? Are we loved and accepted? Are we enough as we are, or must we prove ourselves through our ambitions or even our ruses like Esau did?”

The Ishbitzer knew he was writing to the rest of us, not merely those of a rarified spirit. He thus elaborates that “everywhere that one enters himself into uncertainties in the service of God and into matters that need clarification, if the matter is clarified for the good then he is greater than one who just removed himself from all doubts.”

It is well-documented that accidents, illness and even death increase around holiday times. Returning to our imperfect families, it is not unusual for our vulnerabilities to surface. We can resist these difficult emotions—sometimes by substituting family for Friendsgiving. We can resist them by drinking and indulging more to tamp down unresolved conflicts.

What the Ishbitzer suggests is another path. We ought to celebrate our “jealousy, competition, insecurity, and favoritism,” by connecting them to our service of God. Specifically, by seeking the root causes and accepting these difficult parts of our own histories, our doubts can’t hold us back. Instead, they can raise us up precisely because we are using them to advance as people by recognizing ourselves in the full and messy complexity of our humanity.

Dubito ergo sum. I doubt therefore I am. When approached as the Ishbitzer suggests, such doubt can help us to forgive ourselves and others. That’s something to give thanks for…

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What are you most thankful for at this time of year?
  2. Can you think about unresolved family issues that still linger for you?
  3. What sort of courage would it require to confront them?

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