Thanksgiving: More than Gratitude Attitude

Today is “Thanksgiving Day” in America.  In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed an annual “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”  By so doing, he transformed the longstanding custom of individually-declared American “days of thanksgiving” into an annual observance.

While gratitude is not uniquely Jewish, it is central to Jewishness.  The very word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudah,”  (which, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, Leah named her fourth child), itself a form of the word “Todah” – thank you. 

Since “Jew” derives from “Thank you,” it’s unsurprising that, in our tradition, the first word one says upon awakening each morning is “modeh” or “modah:” “I give thanks.”  According to Talmud (Menachot 43b), Jews must infuse our entire existence with gratitude to G-d through the formulaic expression “Baruch atah Adonai…” (“Blessed/Praised are You, G-d” followed by the specific reason) at least 100 times each day! 

“Baruch” (our current President’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.  Our rabbinic sages also noted that “Baruch” may be derived from “Baraicha,” meaning “flowing spring.”  So expressed, Judaism intends for us to consciously and continuous express our gratitude for the continuous flow of manifold blessings that we otherwise wouldn’t think about.  In Judaism, therefore, every day should be a “Thanksgiving Day.” 

But gratitude isn’t enough.  True thanksgiving requires action.  How? It might be useful to analogize to the steps that Judaism requires to seek forgiveness.  First, we must 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 make full restitution.  And Fourth, we must not repeat the offending conduct if and when the opportunity arises.  (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah)

Applying analogous steps, true thanksgiving requires us to:   

  • First, count our blessings. (“Gratitude” in Hebrew, הכרת הטוב, literally means “recognition of the good.”)
  • 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. 
  • Fourth, act in ways that show that we never take blessings for granted.  An attitude of gratitude, transformed into action, can be life-changing.  As Alan Morinis has written, “Giving thanks can become a flow that waters the fields of life.”   

What better day than today to begin showing gratitude to all who, in innumerable ways, make our lives more meaningful, easier, productive, happier, better? 

In setting about to fulfill the first three steps of thanksgiving, I made the following list for myself.  Perhaps it might provide you some ideas for creating and sharing your own list:

On this Thanksgiving Day 2012, I am especially thankful for…

·      The love and support of a kind, ethical, and intelligent wife, partner, and companion (thirty-eight years and counting!) – especially when so many others are alone or in hurtful relationships. 

·      My family’s and my good health – especially when so many others face serious illness.

·      Three confident and energetic children, sources of great naches, who will (I hope and pray!) embrace the values and wisdom imparted to me by my parents, ancestors, and tradition, and pass them onto future generations ... including my grandson and second “grandbaby on the way”!    

·      The ability and opportunity to work, and thereby to provide for my family’s health and financial needs, as well as to help others – especially when so many others are unemployed, financially insecure, or deprived. 

·      Many good friends and extended family members, who help give my life meaning, expand my horizons, share my happiness in good times and the burden of unhappiness, and help me define myself and my place in the world.  

·      Great and extensive civil and religious freedoms -- when many people and most Jews throughout history, and many today around the world, have been or are persecuted or denied basic protections and dignities.  We Americans -- and especially we American Jews -- live free from fear and oppression … an amazing blessing denied to most who have ever lived!   

·      My and my family’s education, which afford us many opportunities to better understand the world around us, marshal resources to resolve problems, protect ourselves from the unscrupulous, and seek personal growth and fulfillment.

·      The marvels and advantages of modern technologies, such as public health and medical advances, commerce, transportation (non-stop flights to Israel!), and communication (Email, Skype, and Facetime!). 

·      Being alive during the existence – after nearly 2,000 years – of a strong, independent Jewish nation in our ancient homeland, with the opportunity to travel and live there as a full citizen.  (I acquired Israeli citizenship this year!)   

·      The learning, kindness, wisdom, and patience of my teachers.

·      The privilege of sharing journeys of learning and spiritual discovery with dedicated and inspiring colleagues.

·      The known and untold efforts and sacrifices of others who have made all of these things possible. 

·      And most of all, to the Ultimate Source of all of life’s blessings.  For all these things, modeh ani l'fanecha.  I give thanks to You.

Thank you, my friends, family, colleagues, and others, for reading this and for permitting me to share Torah with you.  

“Happy” Thanksgiving!  And may today, and every day, be for you one of profound gratitude!  

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