Thanksgiving – and giving thanks - opinion

Though largely secularized – like many American holidays – it has a quasi-religious message that equally covers all the denominations.

 THE LINCOLN Memorial, Washington. (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
THE LINCOLN Memorial, Washington.

Ah, Thanksgiving. For Americans everywhere, including – perhaps especially – for those living abroad, Thanksgiving in the old country evokes the warmest and most beautiful of memories.

The beautiful fall colors amaze, though the brilliant leaves will soon be covered by the first, pure coat of snow. The brisk weather brings the annual closing of the windows and the changing of the wardrobe, particularly in cold climes like Chicago, where I grew up. Several families would gather together each year, with the kids playing football outside while the adults watched the televised games inside. And, of course, that delicious aroma of roasted turkey wafting through the air.

For Jews, Thanksgiving was unique, an anomaly. Though largely secularized – like many American holidays – it has a quasi-religious message that equally covers all the denominations. Who could argue with the universal call to give thanks for the many good things we enjoy in life? Who could refuse to devote one day, or at least a small part of it, to pause and count our blessings rather than focus on our gripes or grievances?

On Thanksgiving, we were privileged to include among our company the beloved principal of our Jewish day school, Rabbi Meir Shapiro. He would speak about the Torah’s emphasis on giving thanks, how the only section in the repetition of the Amida that must be said aloud is “Modim,” the thanksgiving prayer. He would remind us that the word “Jew” or “Yehudi” is itself connected to toda, the Hebrew word for “thanks.” “Yehudi” derives from the matriarch Leah’s declaration of gratitude to God when her fourth child, Yehuda, is born; Yehuda’s birth guarantees that Leah will have more than her share of the 12 tribes, and so she humbly acknowledges her good fortune. Toda also relates to “admission” – as in “Modeh Ani,” the traditional first words of our day – as we acknowledge our dependence upon God, who brings us out of semicomatose slumber each morning into life anew.

Shapiro would also devote a few words to the rabbinic debate over whether turkey is a kosher bird. As there are no specific “signs” that identify birds as kosher – unlike the scales and fins of fish, or the split hooves and chewing of the cud for animals – there must be an ongoing tradition that specific species of birds are permitted. In the final analysis, the fact that great rabbis throughout history ate turkey was sufficient grounds to approve it – and that is something else to be grateful for!

 Happy Thanksgiving (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) Happy Thanksgiving (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

THE FIRST Thanksgiving holiday in America was proclaimed in 1863, amid the Civil War, as president Abraham Lincoln decreed that even in the most disastrous of situations – even as brothers killed brothers in the United States’ most bloody conflict – there must be a pause to give thanks. Lincoln’s dramatic words ring clear and true, even today:

”It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice....”

A coll for humility, God and brotherhood reverberates across time

HONEST ABE’S call for humility, devotion to God, and a sense of brotherhood reverberates across the centuries, directly into our own homes. We, too, are, at the moment, a divided nation, as so clearly demonstrated by our recent elections. The popular vote between the competing factions was virtually even, and the incoming government has come to power by the slimmest of majorities. We cannot reach our highest potential as a people when half the citizens are despondent and feel disenfranchised, while the other half is triumphant rather than tolerant.

As in America, we, too, have been blessed by a giving and generous God with amazing success, with wealth and power that is the envy of every country in our region. What we have accomplished here in the State of Israel in just one century is nothing short of miraculous, in the biblical sense. And the future can bring us even more wonders as we demonstrate how faith and fortitude, as well as belief in our own awesome abilities, can overcome any adversity and change history for the better.

But for all these hoped-for achievements and the promise for the years ahead to be realized, we have to become one nation, with a shared destiny and an assurance that each one of us is no less equal than our neighbor in both burden and benefit. There cannot be “two Israels,” locked in bitter competition with each other if we are to move forward.

As Lincoln said so wisely, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]