This week’s parasha, Vayetzei, doesn’t always coincide with Thanksgiving, but it does this year. There is much to find in the text that applies to being grateful. The dramatic moments of this parasha revolve around the 12 children born to Jacob, between his first wife Leah, the concubines Bilchah and Zilpah, and finally, his beloved wife Rachel, whose birth of Benjamin caused her to die.
Throughout the litany of babies being born, both Leah and Rebecca found reasons to be grateful for prayers answered. But there was a statement of Jacob’s that occurs earlier in the parasha that sets a tone of thanksgiving.
In Genesis 28:16, Jacob has just spent the night on his journey back to Haran, and lays down with a stone as a pillow for his head. In the morning, after a wild dream about angels coming down and up a ladder, and with the voice of God promising that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth, spreading out to the west, east, north, and south, Jacob says, “Certainly, God was in this makom, this place, and I didn’t know it.” The reader was tipped off before Jacob realized this; in verse 11, we read that Jacob came up on a makom, and stopped for the night, and lay down in that makom, that place. Makom is another word used throughout Torah for a place where God is. Jacob is awed by the place, and arranges the stones to mark the happening.
Jacob noticed. He acknowledged. He declared. He did something to mark the moment. That’s gratitude.
Yet, a couple of verses later, Jacob seems to change his attitude a little: in verse 20, we read, Then Jacob made a vow, If God remains with me, protects me on this journey that I am making, gives me bread to eat, and clothing to wear, and if I return, safe to my father’s house, God shall be my God.”
If? Now it seems that Jacob’s devotion to God is dependent on God taking care of Jacob first.That seems less grateful, more conditional. The Hebrew gives us a clue. The word used is “neder”, often translated as a vow or oath, but it is so much more. A neder carries great weight, invoking God’s name, and it’s something that can’t simply be annulled. Commentary says one reason to make a neder is for gratitude, saving one’s life or experiencing a miracle. Seen in this way, Jacob’s neder isn’t conditional at all. It’s devout, heartfelt, and deeply profound.
Not every expression of gratitude that we make carries the weight of a neder. But this week, as we gather around our tables, we can be just as heartfelt with our thankfulness. We can feel the Divine presence, the spiritual boost we get from loving faces around the table. We can look around and say, “Surely, this is a makom, a place where awe is felt and seen.”