I love Thanksgiving. I love it for the turkey and stuffing, for the company of friends and family, and even for the football on the television set. And, I love it for the reminders that come from the very name itself – the invitation to give thanks for what we have, how we live, the food we eat, and the freedom we live.
Judaism teaches that gratitude isn’t really a choice. It’s not conditional and it doesn’t matter if I have all that I want or not. Each morning, we say Modeh Ani Lefanecha – I am grateful in front of you – we say at the start of each new morning. Moreover, each time we recite the private Amidah, we say Modim Anachnu Lach – we are grateful to you. And, there are brachot (blessings) we say for almost everything we do – before we eat, before we perform an act of Torah origins (candle lighting, tefilin), upon seeing the wonders of nature, before studying, and even before seeing someone of great import.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam – Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of the universe…If you look at the words of our blessings, the six word formula that the rabbis implore us to say 100 times a day, nowhere is the word thanks or gratitude even mentioned. In fact, if anything, our blessings are a statement of theological truth, an acknowledgement that without God's active participation, the bread that is in front of us would not be. And so we say, Baruch Atah Adonai - Blessed are you Adonai Our God, sovereign of the universe, who brings bread from the earth. Yet, blessings are our way of expressing delight, and gratitude, and appreciation.
The Talmud teaches us that each time we benefit from something in this world, it should be preceded by the recitation of a blessing – lest we be labeled a thief, stealing from God and/or from the society in which we live. Intentional gratitude transfers ownership from God to the one who says the blessing. So, we bring to the words of the blessing formula the feeling of thanks, and that changes our experience; it changes us. Perhaps it is for this reason that Midrash Vayikra Rabbah teaches: “In the World to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but the Thanksgiving Sacrifice will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but prayers of thanksgiving will not be annulled.” (9:7)
We cannot really live, even in the utopian state of the world to come, without gratitude. Our lives are enriched, our experience more meaningful, when we acknowledge with gratitude the bounty we receive - health, food, shelter, the ability to make a living and live in comfort. On the other hand, failure to acknowledge or living as if these blessings are our expectations lead us to apathy or worse, living with a sense of entitlement.
In the beautiful words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers—wiser than all alphabets—clouds that die constantly for the sake of God’s glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”
It would have been so easy for the pilgrims of 1621 to focus on what they didn’t have. Yet, their story reminds us that any moment is one to focus on what we have been given and to say thank you for it. Today, tomorrow, or each day in this week of Thanksgiving and beyond – we say the words of the Psalmist – Hodu La’Adonai ki tov… Give thanks to God for it is good.
May we each know the goodness of the day, and as we sit to eat our turkey (which in modern Hebrew is the same word – hodu), may we know just how good is our bounty, and how great is our blessing.
Happy Thanksgiving and Todah Rabbah (Many thanks).