D’var Torah: Parshat Vayeitzei

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving. If you’ve been awake over the past few days, you will you will know that Thanksgiving has actually come and gone and that it’s rather late for me to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. But never mind, because in the 23 years or so that I’ve lived in this country, it’s felt like there’s been a gradual extension of holidays in America, so that Thanksgiving in the United States is no longer confined to the fourth Thursday in November. Rather, we are now in the latter end of Thanksgiving Weekend, which, of course, is a close relation to that other outgrowth of Thanksgiving, namely Thanksgiving Week.

The term “Thanksgiving Week” is commonly used in the workplace, especially in the HR department, where an employee will come and say:

“Since we close early on Wednesday, we’re off on Thursday and this year we’ll be closed on Friday as well because no one showed up for work last year on the Friday after Thanksgiving and we couldn’t reach any of our clients in any case because their offices were closed; I think I’ll just take the whole of Thanksgiving Week off and take the family to NYC, where we’ve got tickets for Hamilton.


Oh yes, didn’t I tell you that we actually got tickets? Can you believe it – I booked them a whole year ago, in fact exactly a year ago. I booked them last year on the Friday after Thanksgiving when I was sitting at work doing nothing because hardly anyone else was here and we couldn’t even reach our clients because their offices were closed.”

The idea of Thanksgiving Week is similar to Memorial Week when we now honor our nation’s fallen with great deals on a new Toyota for seven straight days; and it’s also related to that other modern-day phenomenon, Independence Week when all inventory at your nearest mattress store simply must go!

At the heart of these extensions, is commerce. Just like the Hallmark greeting card company is held responsible for events such as Mother’s Day, Administrative Assistants’ Day and Plumber’s Day, fingers can legitimately be pointed at capitalism in general for the expansion of more traditional national holidays. You know, there was a time before Black Friday and then there was a time before Cyber Monday, and now the latest: Grey Wednesday.

That’s right; I heard it on the radio this week. If grey is a tone of black, then the extension of sales and specials to the day before Thanksgiving Thursday now marks that day as a collaborator in the great commercial conspiracy that has become of Turkey Day.

And what has become of the original sense of meaning behind the day and its celebration? While the rest of you might have learned about Thanksgiving in elementary school, immigrants such as myself have no option but to turn to Wikipedia, which says:

The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts, and also to a well recorded 1619 event in Virginia. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England.

As a newcomer to this country, I was genuinely interested to know how Jews deal with this holiday, so a few years after my arrival I asked a rabbi – and in this case, a person who is typically disdainful of ideas that aren’t his own – if he celebrates Thanksgiving. I found his answer pleasantly heartwarming, when he said: “Why not? What’s wrong with הכרת הטוב / Hakarat HaTov / Acknowledging the Good?”

When I bumped into a rabbi colleague of mine at the JCC this week, he said to me: “May your Thanksgiving be filled with הודעה / Hoda’ah / Gratitude.”

ט֗וֹב לְהֹד֥וֹת לַה׳ וּלְזַמֵּ֖ר לְשִׁמְךָ֣ עֶלְיֽוֹן׃

It is good to praise the Lord, to sing songs to your name, O Most High

To proclaim Your steadfast love at daybreak, Your faithfulness each night

I shout for joy at Your handiwork; You have gladdened me by Your deeds, O Lord

How very subtle Your designs; How great are Your works, O Lord

[Psalm 92:2-3,5-6]

The fact that this opportunity to come closer to God by finding holiness in the day, which we do by acknowledging our bounty and by giving thanks to the Source of All Life; that fact that this opportunity in America has been given to us by a group of Christian Puritans who even found 17th century England too wayward and permissive, is not the point. It’s the Giving Thanks for God’s providence, all of which is special, that counts. The message is universal. And even their particular circumstance of leaving, of running from persecution in their homeland in a search for freedom where they might flourish, where they might have an opportunity to live and be who they were; this too is a message that ought to be familiar to us.

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

And Jacob left Be’er Shava and set out for Haran

[Gen. 28:10]

Our Patriarch Jacob was running from his home, so that he would not be killed by his brother Esau. So that he might live and flourish.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway – a ladder – was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

[Gen. 28:11-12]

And in that place, he received God’s providence:

And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”


Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

[Gen. 28:13-17]

Jacob was running from his home, so that his brother would not kill him. Later in his life, he runs from his father-in-law, and after that episode, he prepares to run from his brother once again. Running is something which came to characterize who Jacob was.

We are Jews, which means that we know what it is to run. We know what it is to leave our home, simply so that we might live, and ideally so that we might flourish. The story of Christian Pilgrims leaving England in the 17th century is not a new one; it’s one we’ve lived before and if you ask certain Jews in certain places, even today, they will tell you that it’s a legacy we can never quite shake off, as we continue to live it.

Persecution and homelessness, uncertainty and fear.

Yehudah Amichai describes this legacy in his poem, “And The Migration Of My Parents“:


And The Migration Of My Parents

By Yehudah Amichai

And the migration of my parents

Has not subsided in me. My blood goes on sloshing

Between my ribs, long after the vessel has come to rest.

And the migration of my parents has not subsided in me.

Winds oflong time over stones. Earth

Forgets the steps of those who trod her.

Terrible fate. Patches of a conversation after midnight.

Win and lose. Night recalls and day forgets.

My eyes looked long into a vast desert

And were calmed a bit. A woman. Rules of a game

I was not taught. Laws of pain and burden.

My heart barely ekes out the bread

Of its daily love. My parents in their migration.

On Mother Earth, I am always an orphan.

Too young to die, too old to play.

The weary hewer and the empty quarry in one body.

Archaeology of the future, repositories

Of what was not. And the migration of my parents

Has not subsided in me. From bitter nations I have learned

Bitter tongues for my silence

Among these houses, always like ships.

And my veins and my sinews, a thicket

Of ropes I cannot unravel. And then

My death and an end to the migration of my parents.

My friends, because this chapter in the epic saga of our people is one which gets copied and pasted over an over, our history does not allow us to forget it.  And because this chapter is being read again and acted out in the stories of other peoples, we are obligated now, more than ever, to make sure that our story is not just one that we listen to, but one which we act on; that Torah is not just something we read on Shabbat morning and then put until the next week, but rather that Torah is something we act on in the intervening days between Sabbaths.

There are currently over 60 million displaced people around the world, the largest number in modern history. Of those, about a third—or 20 million—are refugees, individuals and families unable to return to their countries of origin because of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion and/or membership in a particular social group. Those who make it to the United States come—like our ancestors—with little but hope.
Historically, the American Jewish community has felt a special responsibility to welcome and resettle refugees. In the words of Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society): “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we are Jewish.”
Next month, on Sunday Dec. 3, we will have an opportunity to help refugees in our community. The Jewish Federation is organizing an event called “Supporting Our Refugee Neighbors” at Temple B’rith Kodesh from 1-4 pm. I hope you’ll consider participating.
The purpose of this initiative is threefold:

  1. ​To gather a comprehensive range of items, such as clothing, toiletries, and small appliances, for our refugee neighbors (you can find a list of specific items on the flyer)
  2. To introduce the work of local refugee agencies to the Jewish community
  3. To provide an opportunity for the Jewish community to volunteer on the day of the event


The items collected will go to refugees served by eight local refugee agencies that will be attending the event to share information about their work, those they serve, and volunteer opportunities.
The agencies include Catholic Family Center, Refugees Helping Refugees, Mary’s Place, Saints Place, Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services, Rochester International Academy, Muslim Volunteer Network, and No One Left Behind. 
The Federation is still looking for volunteers on the day of the event to help sort and bag clothing and toiletries and carry donated items from donors’ cars. You can find the link to sign up online on the Federation website and the Federation Facebook page. 

“We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we are Jewish.”

ט֗וֹב לְהֹד֥וֹת לַה׳ וּלְזַמֵּ֖ר לְשִׁמְךָ֣ עֶלְיֽוֹן׃

It is good to praise the Lord, to sing songs to your name, O Most High

but what do our songs amount to if we don’t if we don’t turn to action?

Please, take one of these fliers, find the web address at the bottom of the page and together, lets demonstrate who we are as Jews here in Rochester, our home and our safe place where we have so much.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving.