Every year for Thanksgiving weekend I give the same sermon. No, it’s not the same words, of course, but it is the same message that we need to hear again and again. This week I came across an address I had written for a community interfaith Thanksgiving service 36 years ago. Let me share with you part of the 1st paragraph:
For some, this Thanksgiving holiday has lost its meaning. “What have we to give thanks for,” they say. “With over 13% unemployment; with skyrocketing inflation; with New York and many other of our great cities about to go under; with the failures of détente; with war still rampant; with the never ending turmoil in the Middle East…” What do we have to be thankful for?”
Some things, it seems, never changes. 36 years later there are still those for whom Thanksgiving has lost its meaning. 36 years later we have 10% unemployment—but the figure is probably closer to 16 or 17% if we factor in those who just gave up looking. The economy seems to be going nowhere and inflation threatens—have you checked your bill at Kroger’s lately? Turmoil in the Middle East is worse than ever with daily riots in Egypt and Syria and Iran threatening to go nuclear.
So what do we have to be grateful for? The answer is PLENTY! We live in a land that is—as Michael Medved affectionately calls it—“the greatest land on Gd’s green earth.” The freedoms and opportunity we enjoy here are unparalleled anywhere. None of us is starving. We all have bread on our plates and money—however little—in our pockets. We all have a warm house to come home to with all the latest conveniences as well as a smart phone in our pockets.
And as American Jews, we have a great deal to be thankful for. America provided us with a home when no one else would—a home free from oppression and persecution—a home where a Jew can hold his head up high and walk with pride and dignity. In fact—as I pointed out on Rosh Hashanah—we’ve come so far that being Jewish in America is now really cool.
No wonder that Thanksgiving is the day when we Jews feel most at home in America. We love Thanksgiving because it’s observed in such a Jewish way—with a family meal. It actually feels like Yom Tov. And we love Thanksgiving because it is really a kind of American version of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—giving thanks for the harvest and bounty that Gd has blessed us with.
Our task on Thanksgiving is to acknowledge, appreciate and give thanks for all Gd has given us! We need days like Thanksgiving and Sukkot to remind us because gratitude is not the natural state of a human being. It’s a learned behavior. A child does not think to thank others for the things that they do for him unless he is taught that it’s good manners to do so and that acknowledging and showing appreciation for even small favors will come back to him to his benefit.
Thanksgiving is so natural a holiday for Jews because to be a Jew is to be a thanking being. It all stems back from mother Leah in next week’s parsha (Gen. 29:35), who after giving birth to her 4th child said, Hapaam odeh et Hashem, “This time I will thank God,” al keyn kara sh’mo Yehuda, “Therefore she called his name Judah.”
After the death of King Solomon, the land of Israel was divided with the Kingdom of Israel in the north and Judea (mostly the tribe of Judah) in the south. The northern Kingdom of Israel, with its 10 tribes, was destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and then lost—dispersed throughout the empire. Jews today are mostly descendants of the tribe of Judah that remained and that’s why they’re called “Jews.” The word “Jew” itself—in Hebrew, Y’hudi—actually means, “one from the tribe of Judah,” but literally it means, “one who gives thanks.” So to be a Jew is to be a thanking being.
So many of us, however, fall victim to what Dennis Prager calls, “The Missing Tile Syndrome.” He suggests: If you look up at a tiled ceiling in which one tile is missing, you will most likely focus primarily on the missing tile. In fact, the more beautiful the ceiling, the more you are likely to see nothing but the missing tile and let it ruin your enjoyment of the rest of the ceiling. When it comes to ceilings, your clothes or your car, such obsession with the missing may be desirable. But what can be desirable or necessary in the physical world can be so destructive to personal happiness. When people focus on what is missing they make themselves chronically unhappy because while ceilings can be perfect, life can never be. There will always be missing tiles.
A bald man, therefore, when he sees a crowd of people, sees that everyone has hair; or a woman struggling to become pregnant sees pregnant women wherever she goes. An overweight man will see almost everyone else as thin and a divorcee will see mostly happy couples. All of these people focus on what they don’t have and it robs them of being able to appreciate what they do have. The end result is that they are more miserable and less happy and more distant from Gd.
There was once an old man at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, carrying a bottle of schnapps and a bag of cookies. He would come up to people and say, “Today is a simcha—a happy occasion—for me. Please join me for a l’chayim, a toast.” Suspicious tourists soon discovered that he was no schnorer—he asked nothing from them—so they asked what kind of simcha is it? His answer? “Being alive! You see, I survived Auschwitz and since then every day is a simcha!”
That is why when a religious Jew rises in the morning he immediately recites a prayer, Modeh Ani, thanking Gd for reviving his soul within him and for a new day. Then, after taking care of his bodily functions, he recites a blessing, thanking Gd for giving him working organs and reminding himself that if any of these should malfunction, his continued life would be jeopardized. Judaism wants us to start each day by reflecting on how our very lives are a gift, a miracle we live daily.
Do we have to survive an Auschwitz, or a car crash, or a tornado in order to appreciate the redeeming significance of the ordinary, daily stuff—the beating heart, a child’s smile, the company of those whom we love or those with whom we work?
Let me suggest that this Thanksgiving Shabbos you take a moment to think briefly about the things that might have happened—but did not. The yellow light you ran, for which you did not get a ticket, and the car you did not see behind the bush that did not jump the green light and smash into you; and the elevator that worked exactly as it was supposed to and let you off at the floor of your choice instead of getting stuck somewhere between here and there; and the phones and computers that worked, the ice storm that did not happen, and the potentially ugly confrontation stayed by a kind word or perceptive gesture. Many things might have happened, or possibly came close to happening, but did not. Thank Gd!
But mostly, think about the good things that did happen and might not have. The parking place that stood empty, waiting for you, just a few doors from the store you had to visit, the open and easy trip on the highway you expected to be gridlocked…along with all the daily everyday thing you could not do without: family, friends, food, water, air, etc. There is so much we just take for granted. It’s good to pause at times like Thanksgiving to appreciate the simple things in our lives—the pleasures of a good meal eaten in the company of others, shared memories, good times with family. The deeper truth is that Gd usually gives us what we need, rather than what we want—and we have so much!
One of the true weaknesses of our modern culture is the pervasive feeling of entitlement. We say, “Everything we have—and a lot we don’t yet have—is mine by right.” So we don’t have to say, “Thank you” to Gd or to anyone else. But the grateful heart is a healthy heart. The grateful heart is a power plant for the light which lights our lives. Each day is, in some way, an occasion for celebration. Let’s choose to be happy—to see more then the missing tiles of our lives—because there is so much in our lives worth rejoicing over. The psalmist teaches: Zeh hayom asa Hashem, nagila v’nism’chah vo, “This is the day Gd has made, let us rejoice and be happy in it...Hodu laHashem ki tov, ki l’olam Chasdo, “Give thanks unto Gd for He is good; His kindness endures forever.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis