The Most Jewish and American of Holidays

This week, I’ve noticed two themes emerging, as we anticipate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday during the pandemic. The first, largely amplified by public health officials and responsible civic leaders, is a plea to the American people that we stay home and not risk the further spread of COVID by getting together with those outside of our immediate bubbles. I wholeheartedly endorse this plea.

The second thread contains suggestions that we postpone our celebrations entirely, during this challenging time. Some argue that now - when a thousand people are dying every day, when so many are in economic despair, when our nation is still so riven by divisions - is not a time to celebrate.

It is hardly a revelation to note that Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the most Jewish of American holidays; in its format - extended family gathered for a bountiful meal - and in its message of gratitude. So much of Jewish ritual, of our way of being in the world over thousands of years of persecution, has focused on gathering together in appreciation for what we have, despite conditions in the world around us. In our tradition, from the moment we arise and say the Modeh Ani prayer, to the time we say the Sh’ma and go to sleep, we are giving thanks - not because all is right in the world but rather because we are still walking in it. This attitude of gratitude is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes (without apologies for my citing him two weeks in a row here), even in our name as a people:

Giving thanks is beneficial to the body and the soul. It contributes to both happiness and health. It is also a self-fulfilling attitude: the more we celebrate the good, the more good we discover that is worthy of celebration.

This is neither easy nor natural. We are genetically predisposed to pay more attention to the bad than the good. For sound biological reasons, we are hyper-alert to potential threats and dangers. It takes focused attention to become aware of how much we have to be grateful for. That, in different ways, is the logic of prayer, of making blessings, of Shabbat, and many other elements of Jewish life.

It is also embedded in our collective name. The word Modeh, “I give thanks,” comes from the same root as Yehudi, meaning “Jew.” We acquired this name from Jacob’s fourth son, named by his mother Leah who, at his birth said, “This time I will thank God” (Gen. 29:35). Jewishness is thankfulness: not the most obvious definition of Jewish identity, but by far the most life-enhancing.

And in the American context, a day devoted to national Thanksgiving was actually an innovation by President Lincoln, during the darkest days of a nation at war with itself. Prior to 1863, the holiday was celebrated at separate times in different localities, mainly in New England. But one of our greatest presidents would, at the behest of Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, come to see it as an opportunity to reaffirm our national unity.

On 3 October 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation:

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People…

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It is in this spirit, one both deeply Jewish and deeply American, that I look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week. I will mark the day both as a day of contemplation and mourning for those who we have lost to COVID, and a day of gratitude for those who are still with us in this world. I hope we can hold it as a day to appreciate the gifts we have, and by doing so, discover a path to more good that we may celebrate. For me, it will be a smaller gathering (one of just myself) than is normal or desired, but it will be a day of Thanksgiving, and for that I am grateful.

Wishing you all a holiday of gratitude, and a Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy