Yesterday, across America, people sat down at tables filled with food and expressed their thanks and gratitude for their good fortune, for the blessings in their lives, and for the people who surrounded them.
Growing up in Britain my knowledge of Thanksgiving was limited to what I had seen on TV, and as such I knew that this annual festival revolved around a parade, American football, time with the family, and a spectacularly big meal involving something called yams. That was pretty much all I knew about the holiday. But in the nine years since I celebrated my first Thanksgiving this holiday has become one that I look forward to.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful innovation of American society and it is an important day on our annual calendar. Far be it from me to tell you about the origins of your holiday, but it was interesting to note that it was in 1621 when English pilgrims, settling in this new land, celebrated their successful harvest. We Brits get everywhere.
More importantly was George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation of 1789, when he declared that the 26th of November would be a day devoted to God to give thanks to God for “his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war [we don’t need to talk about that] --for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed … and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
When we think about how this country has developed in the last 200 plus years since George Washington stood up and gave his address it is clear that we have plenty to be grateful for. With all the riches and blessings that come from living in America a day of Thanksgiving is a fitting and appropriate celebration on the calendar.
As members of the Jewish community we should be especially grateful for the home that we have found in this country and the way in which we have been able to thrive in our new country. For many of our families fleeing persecution in Europe, the Middle East, and in other parts of the world America provided a safe haven and a place to which we could run and set down roots for ourselves, our families, our community, and our religion. I have always found it to be more than a coincidence that 1492 was both the year of the Edict of expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the year in which Christopher Columbus set sail from that same country to discover this new land that would become our home.
But I do have a problem with Thansgiving; it is over too soon. And rather than follow up the day with gratitude and blessing, it is followed by this ever so “Black Friday” where bargain hunting and shopping are the orders of the day. This is not the way that the day after Thanksgiving should be. Instead I want to suggest three ways in which we should follow Thanksgiving that would be good for us, good for our community, and good for our world.
Thursday was the one-day of the calendar when we intentionally stop to appreciate what we have. Many of us would need multiple hands to count our many blessings, but while we may only need a hand or two to count the challenges and the frustrations in our lives, all too often it is these that we focus on. I know that I am blessed; with a job that I enjoy, a roof over my head, and a family that I love beyond words I am one of the very lucky ones. Add to that the fact that I live in this country of freedom and democracy, I know that there are many millions of people who would gladly swap places with me. And yet all too often it is the niggling challenges, the areas of frustration, and the one or two difficulties that I face which command my focus and attention.
I think that part of the problem comes from the fact that rather than appreciate what we have, we choose to focus on what we don’t have. We look at our neighbor with the bigger house, more expensive car, newer phone, and we fail to appreciate that our house is big enough, our car is good enough, and their phone will be out of date in a couple of weeks anyway.
When God gave us the Ten Commandments most of them make sense as a sort of “Top Ten”, but I have always felt that commandment number ten of do not covet, seemed slightly out of place when following on from do not steal, do not murder, etc. But perhaps this simple instruction, which is so difficult to follow, is actually the secret to a happy life. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors Ben Zoma asks: Who is rich? And he answers, the person who is happy with their portion in life. There is no specific amount of money that makes us rich, it is an attitude of appreciating what we have and realizing that it is enough that makes us rich.
Recently a photograph has been circulating on Facebook, challenging us to look at our lot in life, and see the challenges for the blessings that underlie them. This list says:
I am grateful for early wake ups, because it means I have children to love;
For house to clean, because I have a safe place to live;
For laundry to do, as I have clothes to wear;
For dishes to wash, because I have food to eat;
For crumbs under the table, as we have family meals together;
For grocery shopping to do, as I have money to provide for us;
For toilets to clean, because it means we have indoor plumbing;
For lots of noise, because there are people in my life;
For endless questions about homework, because my kids brains are growing;
And for being sore and tired in bed, as it means that I am still alive.
The first step for ourselves is to appreciate what we have.
And then from the Jewish perspective we need to recognize that Thanksgiving is not an annual day in our calendar, instead it should be a daily part of our lives. As Jews every day is Thanksgiving. The first words that we are supposed to recite, every day, are: Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chay vekayam, shehechezarta binishmati, bechemla raba emunatecha – Thank you God, the ever living Sovereign for restoring my soul to me in mercy. How great is Your trust. We begin our day by thanking God for the fact that we have once again woken up. Judaism stops us taking for granted the new day that stretches our before us, and instead makes us pause and say thank you for the gift of another day. We begin our Jewish day with what some have called an attitude of gratitude, offering thanks simply to be alive and awake.
And three times a day we recite the Amidah, which includes the passage: Modim anachnu lach – we acknowledge with thanks that you are Adonai our God. In this prayer we remind ourselves that there is a lot for which we as Jews should be grateful. We thank God for the daily miracles which we experience and for the kindness which emanates from God. Our liturgy reminds us throughout the day that as a community and as individuals there is a lot for which we should be thankful.
And on this day of Shabbat, the Psalm, which we add to our service, Psalm 92, tells us Tov lehodot l’Adonai – that it is good to give thanks to Adonai. This Psalm essentially begins by recognizing the positivity of giving thanks to God. But with the beautifully ambiguous phrase “it is good to give thanks to Adonai”, we are uncertain as to whom it is good for. Is it good for God to receive our words of thanks and songs of praise? Or is there something positive for us when we give thanks? I doubt that God needs our words of thanks as much as we do.
And so the second step, for ourselves and those around us, is to make every day a day of Thanksgiving, an opportunity to say thank you to God, and to the people who surround us, enriching our lives.
Finally, Thanksgiving should be a call to action. On this day when we appreciate all that we have it is important to recognize all of the people in this world who have not been blessed in the same way as ourselves.
I am always proud that a week or so before Thanksgiving we partner with UJA Federation of New York to participate in the annual Families helping families program. So that on this past Veteran’s Day our Congregational Hall was filled with hundreds of parents and children packing Thanksgiving baskets to share with the needy and less fortunate in our own community. For everyone who participated in this day it was a way of sharing the bounty of our lives with others.
Thanksgiving is our American holiday where we sit around a full table of food and in this way it may be paralleled with Pesach in our Jewish calendar, when we sit around a full table of food. Significantly, towards the beginning of our Passover Seder we declare “let all who are hungry come and eat”. As we celebrate our day of food, we welcome others to share in that gift. This year I loved seeing the sign on the door of Bada Bing Pizzeria in Ohio. It read: “We will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. However, we will be having dinner here around 2pm with our family, employees, and friends. If you are hungry or don’t have any money, please come in. We will welcome you and make sure you get plenty to eat. This is what Thanksgiving should be about.
And this year as we see millions of people displaced by violence and war in various corners of our world I cannot celebrate Thanksgiving without thinking of the refugees who no longer have a home, let alone a table around which to sit. These people have no country to call their own, and their experience is not so far removed from our own experiences one or two generations ago. As Jews our own refugee experience should be a spur to action, but as Americans Thanksgiving is that holiday where, in its origins, we celebrate our arrival and settlement of this land; recognizing that we should be grateful to live here and share that blessing with others.
Today we are 365 days away from our next Thanksgiving, but if we can be inspired by this day to appreciate what we have, to give thanks for what we have, and to help those less fortunate than ourselves then we can take the spirit of Thanksgiving and infuse it throughout the year. And this will surely be something that will be good for us, good for our community, and good for our world. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Hodia Sameach and Happy Thanksgiving.