Rabbi Michael Barclay
The Jewish Holiday of Thanksgiving
Happy Thanksgiving! Although now considered a secular holiday, it was originally a religious celebration, and the concept of “thanks-giving” is an integral part of both Judeo-Christian teachings and this entire nation’s history. It is a holiday that is simultaneously spiritual and historical in its roots for both our religion and our country. It is a time to truly be grateful for so much, to remember the importance of gratitude (and the honest humility that comes as a result), and to pledge ourselves to the service of others and God.
Although a national holiday, it has always been amazing to me that especially so many political leaders on both sides of the aisle often forget this gratitude, especially given the architecture of the chamber of the House of Representatives that they all see on a regular bases. Lining the walls of the chamber are 23 marble relief portraits of “lawgivers.” Twenty-two of them are side portraits showing the profile of each lawgiver’s face. But directly opposite the seat of the Speaker is a relief of Moses, the one lawgiver with his entire face showing. Moses: the most humble and grateful man who ever lived. A reminder to all who dream to politically represent the people of this nation that they must remember to be grateful for that opportunity of service. And it is a reminder to us as Jews that we need to emulate this “most humble man who ever lived” who was always in a state of gratitude.
We see the biblical importance of being grateful in a powerful and subtle way in the attitudes and actions of our Patriarch Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei (Gen. 28:10-32:3). The portion deals with Jacob’s challenges while serving Laban in order to be able to wed Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Despite the many challenges that Laban puts in front of his future son-in-law, Jacob is always grateful to God for the opportunities he has. His constant sense of real humility and gratitude are what allow him to become a leader of not only a family, but ultimately of a nation. We all need to have that same deep sense of gratitude in our own lives, but how can we personally learn to create a deeper sense of appreciation for each moment of life and service?
There are three types of prayers that Jews traditionally say: prayers of praise; prayers of petition; and prayers of thanks and gratitude. (This does not include any of our forms of hisbodedus/meditation, which often involve a different form of dialogue than these three main divisions.) Of these, prayers of gratitude are in many ways the most important as they the keys that open up the locks of the other prayers. Once we truly feel gratitude for any of the gifts that God has provided us, it allows us to awaken our psycho-emotional state so that we can truly praise God, and know how and what to petition God for. There is an exercise that I learned over 25 years ago from a student of Rav Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah. I share it here in hopes that it can help all our Thanksgiving holiday joy to continue all year and throughout our lives.
The exercise is called a “gratitude journal.” Get a notebook, and spend an hour writing in it everything you can think of that you are grateful for. Often this is easy for the first 15-30 minutes, but spend the full hour and write down everything you can think of.
Then, every morning and every evening add something new to the journal. Maybe something you experienced that day, or something subtle or monumental…but every morning and evening make it a point to write down something new that you are grateful for.
Over time, you will see a subtle but extremely deep change in your life. This practice doesn’t take away pain, but it takes away the suffering that sometimes accompanies the pain of growth. Try it out for a few months and see if you start finding yourself happier, living and understanding life more fully.
This type of thanks is one of the foundation stones of Judaism, and as evidenced by the history of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States as well as the architecture of the House chamber, a foundation stone for our nation. It is why Rabbi Larry Goldmark, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement for over 40 years is fond of teaching the importance of the morning prayer “Modeh Ani,” the traditional first prayer a Jew says in the morning upon waking. “I give thanks before you, O God who is the living and eternal King, for returning within me my soul with compassion and eternal kindness” When we begin our day with this prayer… with real gratitude for the simple gift of waking up in the morning, it affects every moment of that day with the fullness of Life.
May we all carry the gratitude for each moment in every moment, and may we remember who we need to be and how we truly need to act: with hearts rooted in a real Thanks-giving.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and may we all be blessed to feel gratitude in each moment for God’s eternal compassion and kindness…and to have a sweet and meaningful Yom Hodu (Day of Thanks).
Rabbi Michael Barclay November 25, 2020 9th of Kislev, 5781