Parashat Vayishlah- A Lesson in Showing Gratitude
The Tur (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, Germany-Spain, 1275-1349) writes that the three pilgrimage festivals – Pesah, Shabuot and Sukkot, when all of Beneh Yisrael would go to the Bet Ha’mikdash – correspond to the three patriarchs. The festival of Pesah corresponds to Abraham, Shabuot is associated with Yishak, and the holiday of Sukkot relates to Yaakob.
The connection between Abraham and Pesah is reflected by the story of the angels’ visit to his tent, which, according to our tradition, took place on Pesah. Shabuot commemorates the event of Matan Torah, the Revelation at Sinai, and our Sages teach that the Shofar sound that Beneh Yisrael heard at the time of Matan Torah was produced by a horn taken from the ram of Akedat Yishak. After Abraham placed Yishak upon the altar as a sacrifice, an angel ordered Abraham to withdraw his sword, whereupon he offered a ram as an offering in Yishak’s stead. The horn from that ram was used as the Shofar when Beneh Yisrael received the Torah at Sinai, thus establishing an association between Shabuot and Yishak Abinu. Furthermore, Yishak embodies the quality of self-sacrifice, which is the fundamental basis underlying Kabbalat Ha’Torah – committing oneself to Torah and Misvot, the commitment which we commemorate and renew on Shabuot.
But while these associations are fairly straightforward, the connection between Yaakob and the holiday of Sukkot seems far more obscure. The basis of this association is a verse in Parashat Vayishlah (33:17), which tells that when Yaakob arrived back in Canaan after his peaceful reunion with his brother, Esav, he constructed a house outside the city of Shechem. The verse then adds that Yaakob built "Sukkot," shacks, for his cattle, and on account of these shacks the site was called "Sukkot." These "Sukkot" that Yaakob built for his sheep form the basis of the connection between him and the annual celebration of Sukkot.
How are we to understand this connection? Why is it significant that Yaakob built huts for his herds, and how does this relate to the festive occasion of Sukkot?
Rav Bergman explained that Yaakob built shelters for his cattle because he felt indebted even to his animals. The importance of "Hakarat Ha’Tob," gratitude, was so deeply ingrained within Yaakov’s consciousness that it led him to feel appreciative to his flocks, which were his family’s source of livelihood. Remarkably, he felt he owed it to his sheep to provide them with comfortable living quarters, which would protect them from the elements.
Yaakob’s greatness in this particular area of gratitude can help explain a famous, but perplexing, account in the Midrash concerning the experiences of Yosef after he was sold as a slave in Egypt. The Torah relates that his master’s wife attempted to seduce him, but he resisted her advances and ultimately fled. The Midrash tells that Yosef nearly succumbed to his temptations, but then he saw the image of his father, Yaakob, at which point he immediately withdrew and fled. How did Yaakob’s image help Yosef restrain his sinful impulse? How did this vision empower Yosef to resist?
Yaakob’s image reminded Yosef of the extent to which the obligation of "Hakarat Ha’tob" extends. His father felt a debt of gratitude even to his animals. Certainly, then, he, Yosef, must show gratitude to his master, Potifar, who treated him well and cared for his needs. He was indebted to his master – how could he now commit adultery with his wife? It was by contemplating Yaakob’s example of "Hakarat Ha’tob" that Yosef garnered the strength and resolve to avoid sin.
This is why Yaakob is associated with the festival of Sukkot, when we celebrate to give thanks to the Almighty for all we have. When the time comes to say "Thank you" to God, we are reminded of the example of our patriarch Yaakob, who took this value so far as to feel indebted to his animals.
We perhaps cannot be expected to feel grateful to our material possessions, as Yaakob did, but we must learn from his example, at very least, to show gratitude to the people around of us, and to God, for all we have. It is easy and convenient to criticize and to complain, but this is not the attitude we’ve inherited from our great patriarch. He has taught us to be grateful, to appreciate all we’ve been given, and to be thankful for what we have, rather than complain about what we don’t have. This is the great legacy of Yaakob which we are obliged to preserve and pass down to the next generation.