2016-11-23 / Religion Column

Thanksgiving: The most Jewish of holidays

Temple Beth Sholom

We are about to celebrate the most Jewish of secular American holidays: Thanksgiving. What makes it so Jewish? Of course there is the food—deliciously large portions of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie that rival even the most abundant Passover Seder tables. Even more Jewish than the food, however, is the central question that we ask each other on Thanksgiving: “What are you thankful for?”

Unfortunately, this question can sometimes get lost between courses and football games. Yet we miss the point of Thanksgiving if we do not give it the time and attention it deserves. That’s because this is the question that makes Thanksgiving such a Jewish holiday.

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, argues that Judaism is, at its core, a religion of gratitude. He writes, “Nothing is more antithetical to Jewish spiritual awareness than an overweening sense of entitlement, and nothing more indicative of a Jewish approach to life than an abundant sense of appreciation.” This is most apparent in the many blessings we say over the course of a day. We thank God for waking up in the morning, before and after we eat, upon seeing a rainbow, on hearing good news, even after going to the bathroom! Our tradition compels us to take nothing for granted, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude for even the most mundane of life’s miracles.

One of my greatest joys as a parent is singing Modeh (or Modah) Ani Lefanekha every morning with my children after they wake up. The tune for it is catchy, but the meaning of these three simple words is anything but elementary. Note that we do not say, “Ani Modeh Lefanekha,” “I am grateful to you God,” but rather “Modeh Ani Lefanekha,” “Grateful I am to You God.” Rabbi Held suggests that this teaches us that there is no self without gratitude. Before we can say Ani, “I,” we must first express our gratitude to God for having been created.

Besides prayers, how do we show our gratitude to God for the incredible gifts in our lives? Put simply, we are called to give what we have been given. We strive to walk in God’s ways by acting with hesed, with kindness, with compassion, and with determination to make a positive impact on our world.

It all starts with gratitude, by acknowledging the miracles large and small that God has performed for our people over the centuries and continues to perform for us today. Cultivating a sense of thankfulness begins with how we see our world. There is a teaching that we should recite 100 blessings every day. The point of saying so many blessings every day is to help us be more aware of the people, the world, and the miracles that surround us.

What are you thankful for this year? This central question of Thanksgiving expresses a central tenet of Judaism. The feelings of gratitude that our tradition encourages us to express are an important piece of living a Jewish life. Let us think deeply about this question not only on Thanksgiving, but also on every day of the year. 

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