29 Cheshvan 5772
November 25-26, 2011
“So he built an altar there and invoked the Lord by name.” – Genesis 26:25
This week’s portion, Toldot, tells the story of Isaac’s life, which in many ways is remarkably similar to his father’s (to the point where some modern commentators suggest that the two were actually the same person!). In the portion, in addition to the sibling rivalries of Jacob and Esau, and the questionable (horrific?) parenting methods utilized by Isaac and Rebecca, we find Isaac seeking to thank God for promising that just as God blessed his father Abraham, so too would God bless him and his descendants.
Isaac goes about giving thanks the way traditionally done during his era: he built an altar in order to make a sacrifice. However, we find here that Isaac, despite having plenty of material wealth and flocks galore, does not offer up an animal sacrifice. Rather, he “invoked the Lord by name.”
The first time in the Torah we see an “offering” of some kind being made to God is by Cain and Abel, back in Genesis chapter 4. There is no alter, and there is no invoking of God’s name. There, God preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s, as the ancient rabbis suggest Abel offered the best of his flock, while Cain did not offer his best produce. Thus, we learn that when making offerings of thanksgiving, we should be giving our best.
The first instance in the Bible of building an altar and offering sacrifices on it is by Noah, and is done after the flood (Genesis 8:20). The Torah makes clear that Noah brought extra animals onto the ark for this express purpose before the flood – otherwise, if he had just brought sets of 2 onto the ark, to offer any animal up for sacrifice would have been the extermination of the species! Despite not invoking God’s name when making the sacrifices, we learn in Genesis 8:21 that God found the odor of the sacrifices pleasing, and as a result, resolved to never again flood/destroy the world. We therefore learn that making offerings of thanksgiving has the ability to result in outcomes beneficial to us.
We have 3 examples here of giving thanks to God:
*Cain and Abel make offerings without an altar and without invoking God’s name.
*Noah performs animal sacrifice upon an altar he built, but does not invoke God’s name.
*Isaac builds an altar and invokes God’s name, but does not perform animal sacrifice.
Each of these examples of giving thanks is different than the other. And each of them was acceptable to God.
As Jews we no longer offer sacrifices, as after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, prayer came to replace our sacrificial rituals. Prayer can mean different things for different people, and the possible expressions of prayer are endless. The examples above make it clear that how you offer thanks, provided you do so wholeheartedly and from a place of sincerity, makes little difference. Rather, expressing thanks in and of itself is the essential virtue, and has the ability to dramatically improve the world around us.
This Shabbat, which falls on Thanksgiving weekend here in the USA, reflect on your blessings. Determine those things you are most thankful for, and in whatever way comes most naturally to you, make sure you take the time to say thank you.