Esau, Jacob, and Feeling Our Way Into a Pandemic Thanks-Giving

By Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis

In the story of Jacob and Esau, Esau, as a young man, loses the future he has always thought would be his. He has foolishly given away his birthright claim as eldest son. He has been tricked out of the blessing of carrying on his grandfather Abraham’s legacy. Esau is left weeping in grief and anger: “Didn’t you reserve a blessing for me, Father…? Bless me!” (Gen. 27:34-36).

Esau sometimes gets a bad name in our stories, but – oh! I feel for Esau. In the way the Torah tells the story, he hasn’t done anything particularly wrong. He isn’t looking for trouble. He hasn’t always used the best judgment, but who has? And, now, the things that he has taken for granted have been stripped from him.

As Jews, we are said to be descendants of Jacob, also known as Israel, who was cunning and scrappy and felt awe and wrestled with God. But, this year, as we head into Thanksgiving, I identify more with Esau, who ended up losing out on big-deal life things, with long-lasting implications. His life took an entirely different track because of those missed opportunities.

I mean this on behalf of us all. The things we are losing out on this year are not small. They are things like not being with loved ones for so many months, with no end in sight. For the B’nei Mitzvah families I work with, this is about a child not getting to have the same kind celebration as older siblings and friends. For many of us, it’s about not getting to be with those who lie ill, not getting to sing together, not getting to touch other people, losing the chance to work, or not getting to do the very things that have given structure to our days and identities.

Like Esau, we were not looking for trouble. We did things mostly right. We wore masks when we were supposed to. We tipped our delivery guys. We were decently kind to people in the street. But, the things that we have counted on in the past are not ours right now. And, for most of us, Thanksgiving will not be the Thanksgiving we are used to.

In our tradition, when things are hard, we are not instructed to ignore the bad. We learn that we should not deny mourning but to comfort each other through it. We are taught that it is important to recognize the brokenness of the world so that we can help repair it. We have holidays to mark and honor heart-rending events of our past. We even stomp on glasses at weddings to note that in moments of our greatest happiness there is also grief.

Our tradition teaches something else too, though. And that is that, even in our moments of greatest sadness, there is also a potential for hakarat hatov, recognizing the good. I don’t mean that everything is for the good: a pandemic is not for the good; being apart from each other when we need each other is not good. But, rather, Judaism teaches that, within ourselves, we have the capacity to learn, grow, and find light even in our times of darkness. We have the capacity to look for good where it can be found and to honor that good in ourselves, in others, and in the world as we encounter it.

The Roman Catholic monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, who was born in Vienna and spent part of his teen years in hiding under Nazi occupation, talks about how cultivating our ability to recognize the good develops our capacity for joy, which he calls “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” Usually, he says, we think that we will be happy if something nice happens and unhappy if something bad happens. But, really, he says, we can feel joy even in the midst of sadness. “We just need to feel our way into it.” (On Being with Krista Tippett, 1/21/16).

Steindl-Rast and Jewish tradition agree that the way to nurture our sense of joy and light even when things are dark is about practicing gratitude. Steindl-Rast asks, “What is, now, the opportunity of this given moment, only this moment, and the unique opportunity this moment gives?” When we allow ourselves to notice the good and name it and to express our joy for having these unlikely chances – that is hakarat ha-tov. That is gratefulness. That is thanks-giving.

When Esau grows older, and he and his brother re-unite after many years apart, Esau tells Jacob, “I have an abundance, my brother; let what is yours be yours” (Gen. 33:9). What was lost to Esau in his youth is lost. The life path he had expected is not his. But other, unexpected gifts have emerged. And he has learned to honor the joy he finds in them.

As the People Israel, we are named for Jacob and for all that he wrestled with, his brother Esau included. But, as Jews, we are also named for Jacob’s son Judah, whose name means “gratitude.” We have survived so much, and those of us celebrating Thanksgiving this year are here in grateful living, finding the seeds and sparks of joy even as we acknowledge our losses.

May there be abundance at our tables and in our hearts this year. May we experience the full range of our emotions and “feel all the feels.” And may we give ourselves the gift of recognizing the good, naming it, and offering true thanks-giving.

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis is the Associate Rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.