Monday, November 22, 2010

Is Thanksgiving Jewish?

Connect the dots; Matriarch Leah, turkeys, and the Jewish people. Hint - they come together in November, forming an odd Chagall-like mosaic entitled Thanksgiving. The holiday I love to skip. Well, almost skip. No turkey, no big meal. We plan a very low key family day with little time in the kitchen. I do not do serious cooking on Thanksgiving - instead our family throws something together quickly, after all it is Thursday. And, if it is Thursday, it is humble macaroni and cheese night. The night before Shabbat generally is a night for modest dinners, this contrast adds to the honor and sparkle of the glorious Shabbat meal on Friday night.
As a first generation American, I appreciate this country and recognize that Thanksgiving is a good thing, a wonderful American celebration so I cannot cast it aside entirely. But still, why the day before Shabbat? Not good planning. Confident that George Washington, signer of the Thanksgiving Proclamation on November 26, 1789, would not mind, I simply slide our Thanksgiving over one day. I prepare turkey and stuffing, which then appear along with chicken soup, matzo balls and gefilte fish for dinner Friday night, a Jewish Thanksgiving, if you will.
And, Jewish it should be. Giving thanks is the very essence of who we are. The word Jew comes from the name Judah the largest tribe and the majority of Israelites at the time of the Babylonian Exile. Judah means to give thanks. Here is how the name was given. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. Upon his birth Matriarch Leah declares joyfully, “This time I will thank God”. The name reflects a very special gratitude. Listen to what Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about this gratitude, “From the day that God created His world there was no human who thanked Him as it says, ‘this time I will thank God’.
Leah is the first person to walk this earth, and turn to her maker and say a simple thank you, she teaches us gratitude. One would think that she of all the matriarchs would be the least likely to thank. Compelled to marry the beloved of her sister she might have been tempted to embrace bitterness - instead she teaches us all to be grateful, to appreciate what we have. Her “thank you” becomes the name Judah, the name of the Jewish people.
Names are more than labels, they reflect the true identity and reveal the essence of an individual. How marvelous it is that our people’s name reflects the particular noble quality of gratitude. To be a Jew is to give thanks.
Thankfulness is no simple matter. In Hebrew the word for thanks is l’hodot, the same word for admitting, confessing, as in the Viddui confession at Yom Kippur. I suppose that a sincere thank you involves a little of both, making the giving of thanks a bit of a humbling experience. It involves the admission of need and the recognition of gratitude. It is a tremendous deed to say thank you, and sometimes not an easy one.
Though difficult, thanking God can and should be the very elixir of life. The first words that roll off our tongues upon waking each morning, are words of gratitude, “modeh ani lephanecha”, I gratefully thank You for returning my soul. Our siddur, prayer book is telling us something interesting, to be a wakeful human is to greet each day with gratitude.
We’ve got Jew and Judah, Matriarch Leah, on to the bird. Turkey on Shabbat Thanksgiving is a perfect fit. The word for turkey in Hebrew is tarnigol hodu - the bird of the Indians - now, you and I both know that l’hodot means to give thanks - tarnigol hodu, hmm…the bird of thanks? Why not? A perfect food for Shabbat.
For me in a sense, Thanksgiving falls on Shabbat every week not just one November. Here’s how. Each day after morning prayers we state the day of the week and recall what the Levites would recite in the Holy Temple which was a specific Psalm designated for each of the days of the week. On Shabbat we say Psalm 92, “A psalm a song for the Sabbath day, It is good to give thanks to God”, Tov L’hodot Lhashem. Shabbat and giving thanks come together naturally; a day of rest and a day to think lofty thoughts, to look around and appreciate life’s gifts. There is nothing more sublime than gratitude and nothing as ugly as thanklessness.
Well, we have connected the dots; Matriarch Leah, turkeys and the Jewish people. In spite of the connections I am not going to lead a movement to switch Thanksgiving to Friday night. If your family’s tradition is to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday that is wonderful - if invited I would even join you. Rabbinic teachings are on your side and have examined the modern phenomenon of observing Thanksgiving and have given it their ok. Thanksgiving on Thursday can also be Jewish. When celebrating Thanksgiving, think about making it a Jewish experience. Here are some ideas: a D’var Torah on the theme of giving thanks would be appropriate, calling to mind the unique place America has in our history is a gracious act of thankfulness, reciting the appropriate blessings before the foods and of course a Jewish flavor on the menu always helps.
I will stick with Thanksgiving on Friday night. It leads me to link American culture to our ancient traditions and values. Our name reflects our collective Jewish soul; it is a spirit, the very breath of gratitude that dances deep within us. Jew, Judah, giving thanks - the most eloquent of words. On this Thanksgiving, as on every day let us give thanks for all our blessings, for a country which has a designated a day to give thanks, for mornings that bring life and for Shabbats that teach us to say - we can’t ever say thank you enough.