Rabbi Weinberg spoke last Friday night and offered a D'var Torah that provided a reminder of Giving Thanks for this holiday of Thanksgiving.
If this week’s Torah portion was a TV reality show I imagine that it might be called the Abrahamson Family Saga. It is the story of Isaac, Abrahamson’s son, his wife Rebekah, and their twin boys Esau and Jacob. In reviewing the portion, I was struck by two contrasting elements.
First, the beginning and the end of the parasha include famous stories that stand out as formative in the lives of Esau and Jacob – at the beginning, the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew; and at the end, the story of Jacob supplanting Esau in order to receive their father’s choicest blessing.
And second, the ordinariness of Isaac’s life in between. His is the quiet, normal life of a shepherd and farmer. He lives his life just the way his father Abraham lived – apparently without nearly the greatness of vision or pioneering theological insight. In fact, I remember hearing one commentator quip that our three patriarchs are really Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob.
From the outset, Rebekah’s personality is stronger, more decisive and more insightful. So, it is a little surprising to find (at the beginning of the parasha) that Rebekah is struggling. After finally getting pregnant with the twins, Rebekah’s pregnancy is unusually difficult to the point that she cries out: אם כן, למה זה אנכי “If this is how it is, then why do I even exist?”
I point out this brief, uncharacteristic moment in Rebekah’s life because I imagine that it is the kind of moment with which many of us can identify. Many of us think of ourselves as reasonably competent and responsible people, able to juggle the everyday obligations of life and even able to deal with the occasional curveball that life might throw in our direction. And then, all of a sudden, come the pressures of living with this pandemic, forcing us to re-invent every part of our lives. We need to stay safe ourselves and behave in a thoughtful and responsible way to protect the safety of our relatives, friends and neighbors. Many of us are juggling an intensified work/life balance – discovering that remote working and remote learning are often less than ideal ways to work or to learn. Some of us are feeling more isolated – unable to spend in-person time with friends or relatives. Well we know how hard these days are – and even harder for the lack of knowing how long they will last. It is no wonder that some of us might cry out like Rebekah: אם כן, למה זה אנכי “If this is how it is, then why do I even exist?”
I think that the level of frustration and disappointment is exacerbated by the coming of the Thanksgiving holiday. For so many people, Thanksgiving – the ultimate American holiday – is a time for joining together with extended family and friends for a festive meal and celebration. And now that CDC and other health experts are advising us that the best thing to do is not to gather in large groups, not to travel, but to have dinner at home with only those who live with you. אם כן, למה זה אנכי
We all know people who think that they can outsmart the risks of gathering – by taking everyone’s temperature, or by requiring every guest to get a COVID test – but it turns out that the medical experts just might know more than we do … and they are saying not to gather in large groups, not to travel, but to have dinner at home with only those who live with you.
So, permit me to offer a few suggestions about how to celebrate a real Thanksgiving this year even though it might not be your regular Thanksgiving celebration.
First and foremost: take the time to acknowledge and express gratitude. In spite of the hard times, I imagine that each of us has much for which to be grateful – and taking the time to acknowledge and express that gratitude can help us gain some perspective and equanimity.
Second: adjust expectations. Just because we can’t do everything that we want to do doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything. Many people are making plans to connect over the phone, or SKYPE, or FaceTime, or Zoom in order to share the holiday with others.
Third: expand your reach. Perhaps you know someone who will be alone and would appreciate a call – you have all day on Thursday (and Friday, Saturday and Sunday, too). In addition to whatever your main plans, you can also take some time to reach out to an old friend or a distant relative whom you’ve been meaning to call and just never seem to get around to it.
Fourth: take some time to rest. Pandemic pressures and tensions have worn down most of us, so it is OK to accept that it is normal to be tired, and frustrated, and disappointed – and a day of reflection and rest just might help a little.
Fifth: learn to say: “It’s good enough.” That one is particularly hard for me, but I have learned that it is important not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Give yourself and your family a little slack.
And Last: we can learn from Isaac – that while there are traumatic episodes that punctuate our lives, it is the ordinary, the everyday, the normal that characterize most of our lives. Living through this pandemic is a traumatic episode but I believe that we will return to normal at some point – and I believe that Judaism teaches us that life is to be lived mostly in the everyday – organizing our lives, with God’s help, to be the best people that we can be; expressing gratitude for what we have; and working together to make the world better. That’s the normal for which we should strive, the normal that awaits us as it did Isaac.