Yaakov Giver: On Thanksgiving and Toldot

In observance of Thanksgiving I got thinking about the offensive American expression “Indian giver”. It used to describe a person who gives a “gift” and later wants it back, or who expects something of equivalent worth in return for the item. How did we end up with the expression  Indian giver?

It is based on cultural misunderstandings that took place between early European settlers and the Indigenous people with whom they traded. Often the Europeans would view an exchange of items as gifting, believing they owed nothing in return to the Natives who were generous with them, while the Indigenous people saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange, so had differing expectations of their guests.

The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as, “a present for which an equivalent return is expected,” which suggests that the phrase originally referred to a simple exchange of gifts. In 1860, however, in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett said the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean, “one who gives a present and then takes it back.”

On reflecting on this phrase which is still in colloquial use to describe a negative act or shady business dealings I got to thinking about Toldot, this week’s Torah portion. In reading the portion in the context of Thanksgiving I cannot help but focusing on with Esav getting suckered out of his birthright by his brother Yaakov. There we read:

And Yaakov made pottage; and Esav came in from the field, and he was faint.  And Esav said to Yaakov: ‘Let me swallow, I pray of you, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. And Yaakov said: ‘Sell me first your birthright.’ And Esav said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ And Yaakov said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Yaakov. And Yaakov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esav despised his birthright.( Genesis 25:29-34)

Image result for thanksgiving spread with stew

What the gift of lentil stew? Thinking about it on Thanksgiving I can imagine the whole spread that Yaakov served his brother. On the simple level it seems that Esav was hungry and Yaakov used that as leverage to buy his birthright. Did Esav and Yaakov have the same expectations in this exchange?  Yaakov had an expectation that the exchange was a form of trade or equal exchange.

Sometimes these interactions are to the benefit of the host ( Yaakov) and other times the guest ( Europeans in America). On this holiday celebrating people who took in guests, we need to pause and reflect on our mutual expectations and the privileges we have in these interactions. Enjoy your Thanksgiving Holiday.



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