Thanksgiving: More than a Gratitude Attitude

Gratitude is central to Jewishness.  The very word “Jew” in Hebrew, “Yehudi,” is a form of the word “Todah” – thank you.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that, in our tradition, the first thing a Jew should say upon awakening each morning is “Thank You, G-d, for restoring my soul to me in faithfulness.”   In fact, we are called upon to infuse our entire existence with gratitude to G-d through the formulaic expression with which Jewish blessings begin: “Baruch atah Adonai…” (“Blessed/Praised are You, G-d” followed by the specific reason) at least 100 times each day!

This word “Baruch” (of which President’s Obama’s first name is a variant) is usually translated “Blessed,” but the linguistic root has something to do with bending the knee.  That gesture can mean acknowledgment, subservience, and/or gratitude. 

Jewish sages also noted that the word “Baruch” may be derived from the word for “flowing spring.”  So expressed, Judaism intends that we consciously and continuously express our gratitude for the flow of manifold blessings that we might not otherwise think about.  In Judaism, therefore, every day should be a “Thanksgiving Day.” 

That’s a nice enough sentiment, but what does it mean to be grateful?  In my tradition, a “gratitude attitude” isn’t enough.  True thanksgiving isn’t just thanks-feeling or thanks-saying.  It requires more than thoughts and words.  How so? 

I find it useful to analogize the requirements of true thanksgiving to the steps that Judaism requires when seeking forgiveness.  There are four elements, according to the 12th century rabbi Maimonides. 

First, forgiveness requires that we recognize our error.  Second, we must seek out the victim of our transgression and sincerely apologize, seeking his or her forgiveness.  Third, we must do everything possible to remedy the damage we caused and to make full restitution.  And Fourth, we must not repeat the offending conduct if and when the opportunity arises. 

By analogy, true thanksgiving requires us to:  

  • First, count our blessings. (“Gratitude” in Hebrew, הכרת הטוב, literally means “recognition of the good.”)  It’s actually my Thanksgiving practice to circulate a list of the things for which I am thankful, but in the interest of time, I won’t read it to you.  
  • Second, consider to whom we owe thanks, whether it be for our material resources, our political freedoms, the love of our family, our health, or whatever.  
  • Third, “seek out” those to whom we owe our blessings – our parents, our friends, our leaders, our military, and G-d (however we understand G-d) -- and sincerely express our gratitude directly to them. 
  • Fourth, and most importantly, act in ways that show that we never take these blessings for granted.  An attitude of gratitude, transformed into action, can be life-changing.  As the author Alan Morinis has written, “Giving thanks can become a flow that waters the fields of life.”  

Count our blessings, identify the sources, sincerely express our gratitude to the sources, and, most importantly, act in ways that prove our sincere gratitude.  These are the elements of Thanksgiving.  Showing gratitude to all who, in innumerable ways, make our lives more meaningful, easier, productive, safer, happier, better. 

If we are sincere about Thanksgiving, we must act in ways that show this.   We must transform our lives and those of others through our gratitude.  We must turn “Thank-saying” and “Thanks-giving” into “Thanks-showing” and Thanks-doing.”   

 “Happy” Thanks-doing!  May today, and every day, be for each of us one of profound gratitude!  

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb