As the Jews of the United States, as well as a sizable group of those living in Israel, celebrated the 393rd Thanksgiving this past week, there appears to be precious little to be thankful for in November 2014. With a total of over 30 injuries and six causalities to all-too-loud “silent intifada” in Israel (including two precious Jews stabbed on Tuesday outside of Jaffa Gate), Anti-Semitic stabbings and killings abroad, and nary a word of protest from world leaders and UN officials, it’s difficult to believe that the tragedies will end in the near future. So, how can we be upbeat in such a trying and difficult time? How can we possibly begin to feel thankful this year?
Let’s jump back a long time, several millennia before Christopher Columbus was even a twinkle in his Spanish parents’ eyes. In our סדרה, we read of Yaakov’s hasty exit from home, following nasty death threats from his twin brother Esav. Yaakov, homeless, penniless, and all alone, makes a detour to Bet El (which many believe to be הר המוריה, the Temple Mount) enroute to Haran. There, he has an intense dream full of meaningful symbolism on which I will not focus at this time. Then G-d Himself appears to Yaakov, making an extremely reassuring promise:
וְהִנֵּה ה’ נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹקי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ. וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ. וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
And behold G-d stood among them (the angels), and He said: I am Hashem, the G-d of your father Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak; the land that you are lying on will be given to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the land… all of the families (nations) of the earth will bless you and your descendants. And behold I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land, for I will not abandon you, until I do what I have promised to you. (בראשית כח:יג-טו)
G-d, in a nutshell, promises to Yaakov the blessing of Avraham and Yitzchak, of numerous descendants and recovering the Land of Israel. But, He adds at the end a special assurance that is unique to our third forefather: personal protection, and the promise of this continued security until “אשר אם עשיתי את אשר דברתי לך, I have done what I have promised to you.”
Yaakov awakens from his slumber and says, quite obviously, ” אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי- behold, there is a G-d in this place and I didn’t know.” He then proceeds to make his own promise back to G-d, saying that if Hashem watches over him:
וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי; וְהָיָה ה’ לִי, לֵאלֹקִים. וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה–יִהְיֶה, בֵּית אֱלֹקִים; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי, עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ.
I will return in peace to the Land of Israel (spec. my father’s house), and Hashem will be my G-d. And this stone (Mt. Moriah), will be built as a house to G-d, and whatever I make, I will give as a tithe to You. (שם כא-כב)
In return for G-d’s extremely generous assurance, Yaakov responds that he will ensure that he makes it back to ארץ ישראל, G-d fearing, and will build a Temple at בית אל, which the Midrash interprets as הר המוריה. While it is not written explicitly in the Torah whether Yaakov ever finished this ambitious project, it’s clear that his commitment to G-d, as well as G-d’s commitment to him, enabled him to eventually make it back to Eretz Yisrael in one piece, as we see later on: “ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם” (שם לג:כ).
Yaakov’s encounter with Hashem was clearly a source of חיזוק during his crisis- it was a reminder that, at a time where he felt totally alone, G-d hadn’t forgotten him. Yaakov entered Bet El feeling like he had nothing, but, after his dream and G-d’s promise, he realized “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי”- I still have G-d on my side. In our times too, when the Jewish People feel very abandoned by our neighbors and friends, we cannot forget this. Whether or not we’ve embraced the גאולה yet, we cannot forget that G-d is always with us.
Furthermore, it’s clear from the text that G-d’s promise to Yaakov is not just for him, but for generations to come as well. Hashem told Yaakov that He will personally guard our forefather and his descendants, until all of His blessings have been fulfilled. While we have merited to begin to inherit the land that G-d promised Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and the Jewish People are truly as numerous as the dust of the earth despite many nations’ attempts to destroy us, we still haven’t received the complete ברכה yet, so G-d is still personally watching over us every day, and, as promised, will never abandon us.
However, just as G-d’s promise from Bet El is still in effect today, Yaakov’s is as well. In order to continue to merit the divine protection that we are guaranteed, we must honor our forefather’s pledge. Even if we cannot yet personally begin the building of a בית המקדש on Mt Moriah, and even if some of us cannot yet even go up there to ensure that we do not continue to lose control of this holy site, we still have a more basic level of Yaakov’s promise to fulfill: “ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי והיה ה’ לי לאלקים”- we must work hard to make sure that we too return to home to the land of our forefathers, and keep our faith and worship of G-d intact until we get there. If we lose sight of either of these aspects of Yaakov’s נדר, then we risk losing the השראת השכינה that Yaakov earned through his faith in Bet El, something which desperately need during these dangerous and difficult times.
While it’s been a very difficult couple of months for the Jewish People, we must realize that, just like by Yaakov, not all is lost. As long as we stay strong in our עבודת השם and continue to set our sights firmly on returning to Zion, we are not alone, because “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה,” G-d is with us and, “ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך… כי לא אעזבך,” He will guard us wherever we go and never abandon us forever. This is something to truly be thankful for.