Giving Thanks…the Jewish Way
According to one popular historical interpretation, Thanksgiving is modeled on the biblical harvest of Sukkot. The story goes that the Pilgrims, seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new “promised land,” drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible: the 16th
chapter of the Book of Leviticus in which God commands the Israelites to observe Sukkot — “to rejoice before Hashem your God” —
at the time of the fall harvest. And so, we wondered how the theme of giving thanks – which is present throughout so much of Jewish practice – can be incorporated into the very secular American holiday of Thanksgiving, which we celebrate this year on Thursday, November 22. Here is what our rabbis had to say.
Rabbi Gary Atkins
Beth Hillel Synagogue
One of the most meaningful advertisements I have seen is the one produced by the Salvation Army (not a normal Jewish source, I know), that states: “We combat natural disasters with Acts of God.” That is the best way I know to deal with the theological questions of earthquakes, storms, tsunamis…They are part of the world! (We can deal with the question of global warming separately). It is so much better to be thankful for what we have than to be angry (or jealous or depressed) about what we may not have.
We should remember that there is a difference between needs and desires. When we look around the world and see so many people struggling without shelter, food, clothing…we should recognize the many blessings that we have in our lives (and then reach out to those who have less).
Our prayer liturgy reminds us of this every morning, if we say the traditional morning blessings either at home or at synagogue. In them, we thank God for many things…starting with the ability to distinguish between light and darkness. We then continue with a list that we should take seriously and not just recite by rote. One of them, “Praised are You, God… For providing for all my needs,” a commentator states, was originally recited upon putting on our shoes. Shoes are symbolic of these needs as they are physical symbols of protection from hurtful elements.
Thus, we are taught to be grateful for the gifts that God has given us…and if there is a secular holiday to reinforce this ultimate religious truth, that’s all the better!
At our Bloomfield Interfaith Thanksgiving service last year, we said a prayer that included the following:
“We realize that there exists real love in this world because of religion. We realize that there can be peace in this world because of religion. We know that every day we choose between bringing a blessing and a curse into this world. Let us bring a blessing. We realize that, every day, we can choose life for us, for our families, and for our world.
Let us choose life. We pray that our world improves because of what we have done to improve it. Amen.”
Rabbi Fred Hyman
The Westville Synagogue
According to the historian, Daniel Boorstin, Thanksgiving originally was a religious holiday and harks back to the colonial period. When, for example, a plague in Massachusetts ended, the governor would call upon all churches to conduct thanksgiving services for the citizens. In some years, dozens of these days were called. The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York, hailing from 1654, participated in these events. Currently, secularism and materialism have replaced the religious ideas in our culture.
The second point is that the word “Jew” comes from the name Judah which means “giving thanks.” When Judah was born to Leah and Ya’acov, the Bible notes her saying: “’Odeh – I will thank – God this time,’ therefore she called his name Judah” (Genesis 29:35). Consequently, being a Jew means to be thankful.
Third, our daily prayers are infused with giving thanks. When we arise we say thank you, Modeh Ani, to begin a new day. In the amidah we say Modim Anachnu Lach, and in the grace after meals we recite Nodeh Lecha. On festivals we recite Hodu LaShem ki Tov in Hallel. The prayers are suffused with giving thanks, providing us with a fundamental mode of worship. Judaism knew what contemporary psychological research is bearing out: Being thankful is a key to emotional, spiritual, and mental health.
Although there are fervently religious and culturally insular Jews who shun Thanksgiving as a Gentile day, I as a modern Orthodox rabbi embrace Thanksgiving as a day consistent with values that I share with humanity and as providing me an opportunity to shape the values of my broader community. Therefore, I encourage Jews to make their Thanksgiving Jewish as well as American by doing the following:
1. Recall the religious and Jewish origins of Thanksgiving.
2. Recall to your gathering that being Jewish is to be thankful.
3. Take a moment to count your blessings and recite with special kavanah — focus and concentration — the traditional blessings before and after consuming food.
4. Express thanks to loved ones for all they do for you.
5. Use Thanksgiving to spark your daily expression of thanks in your prayers to God and in your relationships.
Co-chair, Social Action Committee
Congregation for Humanistic
Judaism of Fairfield County, Westport
Barn burned down. Now I can see the moon.
— Basho (Japanese haiku poet b.1644)
My family taught me, in word and deed, about tzedakah and tikkun olam. But I came to gratitude, hakirat hatov, much later in my spiritual development, while exploring Hinduism and Buddhism. I now understand my life’s purpose to be one of both service and gratitude — to be grateful every day for the biggest and smallest things, and to be of service to others. One just naturally leads to the other; the more I feel gratitude, the more I am moved to serve.
My husband and I end every day telling each other what we are grateful for. Sometimes, I can only say how grateful I am that we have a house, heat, and food on the table. Other times, my list goes on and on. But always, there is gratitude. Viktor Frankl reminds us in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that even in the camps there was gratitude, often for the absence of things: a work camp without a chimney, a cook who doesn’t look up when he serves the soup, so plays no favorites.
As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes, “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.”
Rabbi Jeff Glickman
Temple Beth Hillel
It was Abraham Lincoln who in 1863 established that Thanksgiving be celebrated on the same dates by all states. This is the proclamation he issued shortly after the Gettysburg Address. Though not mentioning Judaism, the biblical references are clear.
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, … peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict. …
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
Rabbi Daniel Victor
Congregation Rodeph Sholom
During the year, Rodeph Sholom sends congregants to soup kitchens and other projects in the community. Last year I had an experience that showed the power of direct service in the community. A group of our seventh graders went to the United Congregational Church in Bridgeport. We washed, dried, and bagged fruit for guests to take home with them at the end of the evening. We chopped vegetables and even got a chance to walk into the church sanctuary. Now the power of the volunteer experience for these kids was intense, and the reality of what they were experiencing might have been a lot to take in. Many of our children don’t think about the issues of hunger on a regular basis.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read the early stories of Jacob and Esau. At one point Esau, returning from the hunt, says to Yaakov, “Feed me younger brother, I am going to die of hunger.” He is so dramatic, in fact, that when he gives up his birthright he actually says: “Well, who needs it [the birthright] if I am going to die standing here outside the tent.”
Now, perhaps Esau wasn’t speaking in hyperbole to the extent I am suggesting, but there is a real teachable moment here for all of us in how we understand “perspective.”
When I was with this group of incredible seventh graders, it was evident early on that the reality of the situation was very overwhelming. When these students were told that 600 hundred meals were being prepared for what was expected to be 300-400 people, one student asked “Why so many extra?”
“So that we can offer seconds for those who want,” said a volunteer. “Does anyone have seconds on Thanksgiving?”
One by one the kids chimed in: “I have seconds!” Another said “thirds,” another said “ninths” — with a big smile. But then one of the kids did the math, and asked: “Wouldn’t you then need more than just 200 extra meals?”
One student looked at the other and said, “Perhaps these folks aren’t used to seconds.”
Serving your local community, in a way similar to what these kids did before Thanksgiving last year, or what many of us do at times during the year, really can change one’s perspective.
May direct service be a part of our holiday this year, and every special day in the future.
Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz
Rabbi Hurvitz will lead a program called “Cultivating an Attitude for Gratitude” at Temple Sholom on Sunday, Nov. 18, in which he will discuss many of the points he outlines here. “In the class this year,” says Rabbi Hurvitz, “I’m focusing on what there is to be thankful for in the aftermath of Sandy, including different pieces that both kids and adults can talk about.”
Rabbi Hurvitz’s class is free and presented as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning. For more information call (203) 869-7191.
I have preached and taught a lot over the years about cultivating an attitude for gratitude. While this is not the first time I have offered this class, I timed it as we’re heading into Thanksgiving.
One of the most fundamental aspects of spiritually anchoring ourselves is successfully cultivating this attitude for gratitude.
From Torah, we have the teaching, “”Behold, I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life…” I have always tried to live by and teach that affirmation. When you put yourself in a place to count your blessings, especially in challenging times, you build up a “bank account” that helps you deal with the curses, when they come.
One of the biggest challenges for human beings is that we’re never going to be successful micro-managers of life. Something will always come along to humble us. In the rabbinate, unfortunately I see all too often that life gives us challenges. Preemptively cultivating this attitude for gratitude puts you in a very different place when you are faced with a challenge.
Prayer in the Jewish tradition starts as a form of self-examination, after which your prayers are able to go out to God. So much of our liturgy is a liturgical discussion around cultivating gratitude. You acknowledge all the blessings in your life. In Jewish tradition, you take time to stop and think and acknowledge and thank God for the food you’ve received, and you thank God again after you are satiated. In the aftermath of Sandy, you appreciate that you can get in a car, drive to a store, find food in stock, buy what you need – you are grateful for every step along the way.
In the class, I will teach prayers for parents to help their children cultivate an attitude for gratitude. Using different stories and texts and sources, I will speak about how we empower children to say thank you and access prayer. We can use the opportunity around the Sabbath dinner table and in other settings, and not just with the Hebrew blessings themselves but with commentary as well.
I do a lot of interfaith work and am moved by seeing my non-Jewish colleagues and their congregations engage in extemporaneous prayer. We as Jews need to empower ourselves to do more of that. Judaism did have the tradition of extemporaneous prayer: ritual prayer was always supposed to be accompanied by thought or commentary. But we have lost it a bit along the way. We invented this discipline of prayer and self-examination. How do we access it in a language we understand, in addition to the Hebrew? We go through the brachot, look at the Hebrew, and discuss what the brachot are saying, what they mean, and how we can comment on them. In our religious-school curriculum, when we teach prayer, we also teach meaning and content.
Thanksgiving is my favorite Jewish holiday. It’s completely Jewish: in spirit, I can celebrate as a Jew and as an American, and it’s one of our most joyous celebrations. I always encourage families to put the religion back into the holiday, and to make it a seder, to apply a form that makes it more meaningful.