An Attitude of Gratitude
Imagine a law that goes something like this:
On the last Thursday of November each year at evening, you, and your spouse and children, shall appear before your extended family for a feast of thanksgiving to the Lord. When you arrive you shall ring the buzzer with your elbow. (Why? You wouldn’t come empty-handed would you?) Your host shall take your baskets laden with all manner of good food to eat and lay the bountiful contents on the table. Everyone gathered at that place shall then recite family stories of personal history expressing thanks and gratitude for the miracle of living in freedom and plenty.
Compare this passage above to the opening lines of Deuteronomy 26 in the Bible: “When you come into the land…you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…and come before the High Priest…The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar..” and you shall then recite your history of how you got here. You will probably agree that the Torah’s description of a highly ritualized and minutely detailed expression of thanksgiving to be followed each year does not actually seem all that far-fetched. As we reflect on the power of this ritual, the similarities with our current observance of Thanksgiving jump out at us. Have our celebrations really changed that much from ancient days? The Torah commands the Israelite to:
Bring the Fruit of the Harvest, Appear before the Priest, the chief Representative of God, and to Recite very specific Communal History.
The Torah understands the human proclivity to forget the many blessings that are ours and the difficulty we have with giving thanks. To say “thank you” means we have to accept the help of others, admit our own insufficiency, recognize our limitations. But the Torah also offers us an antidote to these human foibles that is just as potent today as it was in ancient Israel. Within this rite, prescribed generations ago, we rediscover the secret gifts of true thanksgiving, which renew the possibilities for: Sharing our blessings, Renewing a Relationship with our God and Celebrating our history.
Giving thanks, though often a challenge for us today, is one of the most basic of human emotional needs. The Psalms instruct us “Hodu L’Adonai Ki Tov, Give thanks to God because it’s good!” But the real question is: “Good?! Good for whom?!” We are often under the impression that God needs and derives benefit from our gratitude. But the psalmist understood that it is we who actually profit when we thank God. Give thanks to God because it’s good… good for us!! Giving thanks can actually make a difference in our lives!
Using the Torah passage as a model, let’s apply its message to our own day:
Bringing the Harvest: When we share our bounty and blessings with others, we emulate this ancient practice.
When we are conscious and aware of how blessed we are, then the blessings of our life overflow into all of our existence. A mindfulness of our blessings shapes how we think of ourselves, relate to others and the world. If we perceive scarcity and lack, our mental attitude becomes one of fear, stinginess, and suspicion. On the other hand, our lives become an opportunity to share and give when we operate from the perspective of blessing.
I want to emphasize that the key to sharing our blessings is an attitude of gratitude not a reflection of actual material blessing…but rather a rejoicing in what we already have. Developing this kind of attitude may not put more in our pocket or more on our plate, but how we respond to the actual blessings that come our way is more important than the blessings themselves. It is good to give thanks to God for in that moment we find our riches.
The ancient Israelite would come before the Priest, who served as a direct link to God, at the designated sacred spot: Today, we, too, forge powerful relationships with God and one another when we form communities of faith and spirit, as we do this afternoon.
The process of being thankful forces us out of ourselves and into “relationship.” In giving thanks we confront an “other”–human and divine. We recognize our vulnerability and interdependence. Only then do we begin to appreciate that we are all a part of something bigger than our individual selves. It is good to give thanks to God for it links us to the one Source of all life.
As each Israelite would tell their story, so, too, must each of us remember and tell our own story as a part of true thanksgiving. Memory and recounting our personal histories allows us to see our lives in perspective, beyond the immediate moment. We cannot take our blessings for granted when we recognize the journey that has brought us to where we are. Through trials and tribulations, very few things come handed to us on a silver platter.
Memory allows us to link one moment to the next and creates a framework of appreciation and gratitude. It is good to give thanks to God for it creates for us a sense of history that gives meaning to our lives and shapes our understanding of the world.
This year as we head out to gatherings around our sacred places, in our homes with our friends and families, hands and hearts filled with bounty, let us remember the message of this day, to truly give thanks to God. Let us remember to share of our blessings with those who make up our community—especially those in need, to seek to renew relationships, and to tell our stories (and make some new memories). Not only is it good, but this process will make us richer human beings able to live life with greater sensitivity and appreciation. Then we will truly be blessed.
Rabbi Greg Wolfe — Thanksgiving 2019