A Thanksgiving Thanks - even when it hurts

Thursday, 17 November, 2022 - 4:12 pm

We are approaching yet again the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a time where families get together and celebrate life. The past couple of years, we have been dealing with Covid and its ramifications. We should be thankful for this positive change this year and pray that it continues.
The concept of offering thanks is not alien to Judaism. In fact, as we shall see below, thanks are offered every single day in a myriad of ways. The basic thrust is that we need to thank and thank often, and never take anything and anyone for granted.

When the holy Temple in Jerusalem stood before it was destroyed by the Romans, there was a special thanksgiving sacrifice offered by those who wanted to say thank you to God. The Talmud informs us that there are four situations which obligate a person to bring this thanksgiving offering.

1.   One who has crossed the sea.
2.   One who traversed the desert.
3.   One who was sick and became healed.
4.   One who was incarcerated and became free.

The common denominator of all four occurrences is that they were saved from danger. To recognize this fact and thank the one above, a special offering is brought. Since there is no longer a Temple, we substitute these offerings with a special blessing during a public Torah reading. There is also a Jewish custom to invite family and friends to a special thanksgiving meal upon surviving a life-threatening illness.

We are taught in the Jewish code that the first thing we do upon awakening, before we say good morning to our kids and sorry to our spouse, is to sit at the edge of our bed, bow our heads and say a thank you prayer. The specific wording is that we thank God for restoring our Soul, and giving us another crack at completing our unique mission in this world. An acknowledgement that life is fragile and that there is much to accomplish.

As a Jew, I pray three times a day. These prayers are held in the morning, afternoon and evening. The Morning Prayer is the longest and is said before we go to work and begin our tedious day. The very first word that we utter as a congregation is the word “Hodu” which means thank you God for listening to our prayers.
At the pinnacle of all these three prayers, we are advised to ask God for individual and specific help. We stand, put our feet together and ask God to fulfill our wish list. This prayer is called the Amidah Prayer. The last page or two of this comprehensive wish list is completely devoted to thanks. Essentially, we are thanking God in advance for our very breath, food, job, children and life.

We are all human and most of us have had a thought-flicker that perhaps God is not listening to our prayers. And some of us are completely convinced that the thing they asked of God definitely went unanswered. I, as a Rabbi, get asked this over and over again.
My thoughts on this are that God’s sense of fairness, justice and thought is completely different from ours. We are a finite being and trying to understand God’s way of reasoning is impossible. We have not fully discovered and neither do we understand how our own brain works, let alone God’s brain. Even scientists who have mapped out the brain admit that they have only scratched the surface. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that what God did or did not do was wrong or that He did not listen. God operates on a completely different wavelength.
It is very possible (I don’t know God’s brain either) that God did hear everything you asked for, and for whatever reason the answer was a resounding no! Does this make God inattentive or obtuse? I don’t think so. Is a mother evil when she refuses to allow her child an ice cream right before dinner? Even though there are plenty of other mothers (every dad will offer the ice cream and more) who do allow the dessert before dinner, a mother saying no to her child does not make her a bad parent. Quite the opposite. Not only is she not a bad person and mother, she is acting responsibly and fulfilling her divine obligation flawlessly. Likewise, when God says no, it is because there is a reason for it. We are like the child who does not understand how his/her parents can be so mean and not allow ice cream.

The bottom line is this. There are literally so many things to be thankful for. Even if we are hurting from something that is plaguing, troubling or afflicting us, we are obligated to see the good as well. Even if it is not easy to think positively, we must summon the strength to do so. To only see the negative without also seeing the positive is wrong and can be dangerous to one’s physical and spiritual health.
Some examples of simple but important thanks and recognition of the good: We need to be thankful for living in a civilized country with laws and courts as opposed to a place like Afghanistan that is ruled by whims and bullets. We must be thankful that we have a job, home, spouse, family and friends (a great Rabbi?). Even if you do not like your current employment, this should not stop you from being thankful that you have an income and are not homeless and living on the street. Your kids may be a massive drain on your energy, but always be mindful that there are people who are desperate to have children but cannot, etc.

My daughter recently sent me a picture of my grandson at the zoo. His mouth was agape with wonder, his eyes filled with love and hands reaching out to touch whatever animal he was looking at. The picture made me realize that sometimes children are way more appreciative of their surroundings than their parents. Why is this? Because adults are too cynical and are unable to see the forest for the trees. We need to be more hyper sensitive to all the good things happening around us and less critical.

The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to start.
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Comments on: A Thanksgiving Thanks - even when it hurts

Mark Slovin wrote...

What a beautiful essay. Lynne and I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.
Mark Slovin