Yes. I grew up in the UK and I have been living in Israel for 30 years. What do I know about Thanksgiving? And yet, I love the idea.
A family holiday that is dedicated to gratitude seems like a wonderful blessing. It is, in fact, quintessentially Jewish! After all, the holiday of Sukkot celebrates the harvest, the “Ingathering,” and we recite Hallel — the prayer of thanksgiving — for eight days. Sounds familiar?
Gratitude is good for you. Appreciation makes us happier, kinder and better people. It even makes us healthier! In a social experiment (Emmons and McCullough), university students were asked to write a reflection every day, about their day. Group 1 were asked to write what they were thankful for, Group 2 wrote what irritated or upset them, and Group 3 wrote anything that came to mind. After several weeks, the group who focused upon gratitude visited the doctor less, showed better emotional and mental health, and even exercised more!
But then, after Thanksgiving comes Black Friday and Cyber Monday, that holiday of frenzied consumerism. (And even in Israel where we have no “Thanksgiving,” we too are inundated with sales.)
Is there a connection between Thanksgiving and the best shopping days of the year? I would argue that it is an inverse relationship. Though we might think that shopping brings us joy, that a deal on new headphones, or a bargain pair of jeans will increase our happiness and well-being, it actually doesn’t, and it can even increase our dissatisfaction. Listen to Rabbi Sacks:
A consumer society encourages us to spend money we don’t have, on products we don’t need, for a happiness that won’t last… Getting what we want only temporarily satisfies desire. We almost immediately find new things to desire, so that though we may find ourselves better off materially, we do not become happier psychologically.” (Morality. pg.106)
Thanksgiving makes us appreciate what we have; Black Friday inflames our discontent by considering all that we do not yet have.
As a former director of General Motors Research Lab once put it: ‘Advertising is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ Happiness is good for us, but it is bad for business.” (ibid)
As I said, Thanksgiving and Black Friday are a contradiction in terms.
Our parsha this week gives us a lovely insight into a modesty, a mindset of simplicity, and the satisfaction we can find in the simple things in life. The scene: Jacob, escaping his murderous brother Esau, asks for God’s protection:
If you will be with me and guard me on my way, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear…” (Gen 28:20)
The medieval commentator Rabbenu Bachai comments:
Bread to eat and clothes to wear: This is the request of the righteous from God; they do not request excess or luxury but merely the essentials… and as we know the heady pursuit of luxury is the source of much stress and discontent. A such a God fearing person should be happy with his lot in life and suffice with the basics…
He further observes:
That which is most fundamental is in greater and more ready supply in nature, and that which is non-essential is rare and in short supply:
Precious stones and expensive jewels are an uncommon natural commodity and are rarely in the possession of people; this is so because people can certainly live without them. But food, which is more essential, is in greater supply… Water is more essential still … and hence water is more readily available common than food … and there is no place which lacks air! So you see that …God, in his great wisdom, organized the natural world to provide the essentials for His creations. And therefore, Jacob asked only for the basics: Bread to eat, and clothing to wear”.
In this auspicious moment, Jacob provides us with a model and guide to contentment and modest living; a wonderful counterbalance to our consumer culture.
Note: Jacob did not always manage to retain this material simplicity. See the latter half of our parsha and my comments in this article.