by Yvette Perry
Could it be that the first Thanksgiving observance was adapted from the holiday of Sukkot? After all, they are both harvest festivals that take place in the fall. So perhaps it is possible that Sukkot was the inspiration to celebrate Thanksgiving. If we then trace that connection to Sukkot with the importance Judaism places on saying thank you for all our blessings, it surely can be said that Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in Jewish values.
“Judaism” is actually built upon the word gratitude. Because Leah was grateful to God for the gift of another son, she named him Yehudah (Judah) which means, “I am grateful.” In fact, Judah’s name carried such importance that it became the name for our people—Yehudim, Jews, literally, the grateful ones. How profound that at the root of what it means to be Jewish is the very idea of gratitude!
When each spring farmers brought baskets of the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem, it was as an offering of thanks to God. This mitzvah of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1–12) is all about gratitude. In fact, opportunities to give thanks run throughout our Jewish calendar.
Thus, the attitude of gratitude is a central theme in Judaism. Rabbi Levine emphasized gratitude in his Yom Kippur sermon of 2007, “Appreciation of blessings is vital. Appreciation of blessings can even be life-changing, for, if you are blessed, Judaism tells you, you must be a blessing.”
In 1789, President George Washington called for an official day of thanksgiving and it became a holiday to appreciate our freedom, our blessings, and our bounty. Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity for sharing what we are thankful for in our lives: health, family, friends, community, and, oh yes, feast! We take this moment to reflect on what we have, how we want to improve ourselves, and how we can make life better for others.
Together in spirit if not in person, we can still demonstrate our gratitude and deep sense of blessing for all we have—and especially for our CRS community that keeps us keepin’ on. Without doubt, together we are strengthened by what we have in common—an overwhelming sense of thankfulness.
Sitting around a table with family and friends. Delicious food ready to be enjoyed. Gathering for a meal and giving thanks. What could be more Jewish? Sharing values and tradition, Thanksgiving and Judaism is the perfect match. Here are two tasty recipes with a Jewish twist to go with your turkey.
The rich texture of challah bread with pumpkin makes this stuffing an extra special Thanksgiving treat. Use this stuffing in your favorite turkey recipe. By the way, you probably will not have any leftovers so make some extra for outside the bird!
Who doesn’t love roasted Brussels sprouts? Instead of bacon, these Brussels sprouts are flavored with pastrami—perfect for a Jewish Thanksgiving table! Add a hefty sprinkling of pickled red onions that adds color and crunch.
PJ Library’s Gratitude Resources for Kids
These words of hope from Robert F. Kennedy reflect how much he loved this country and its people. This prayer of tikkun olam could not be more appropriate for this year, on this Thanksgiving. Even during a most challenging year such as this one, we can lift ourselves up to find the courage to keep fighting for what we believe in.
Prayer for Our Country
Let no one be discouraged by the belief that there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation. It is from numberless, diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples can build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert F. Kennedy
What with all the complications this year has brought to each of our lives, here is an especially uplifting reading to share a little lightness and some joy at your Thanksgiving table this year.
This Year, Give Thanks, For Everything
This year, give thanks, for everything. Let the tingle of gratitude move into the bones of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. With each beat of your heart, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Dance for the joy, for the love, for the freedom, for the food in your belly, for the beating hearts of the beings that surround you. Sing for the sorrows, for the heartbreak, for the sadness you can’t seem to shake, for the losses, for all those faces that no longer exist in this realm. Speak with words that come straight from your heart, be honest, be kind, be love.
What Can We Do to Help?
To be a Jew is to experience the pain of others, as well as rejoice in their happiness as if it were our own. To be a Jew is to acknowledge and accept the perspective of hope and joy even in the midst of great hardship.
Rabbi Menachem Feldman, Chabad Lubavitch Center, CT
Bring your Jewish values and rituals into this Thanksgiving celebration! Torah teaches that our gratitude must lead us to taking action. Moreover, to be a Reform Jew is to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam. Now is as great a time as any for doing acts of kindness that will help repair our world. Reform Judaism’s Religion Action Center has a list of resources on how we can help. Get inspired to stuff your Thanksgiving with social justice!
In Rabbi Levine’s Thanksgiving message of 2015 to the congregation, he urged:
Let us not abandon historic memory or our cherished Jewish values. Even though we may feel scared or vulnerable, we must not forget who we are and what our venerable heritage stands for. We should count our blessings many times. Think about those who battle hunger for themselves and their families and donate to our congregation’s Food Drive. When we respond to our well-being by being a blessing to all of God’s children, we are fulfilling the reason God created us in the first place.
Rabbi Robert N. Levine
Thankfulness and Our Health
Scientists have found that there are all sorts of positive outcomes from practicing gratitude. Our physical health and immunity against disease is improved. When we rid ourselves of negative emotions such as resentment, frustration, and regret, replacing them with thoughts of gratitude, we can sleep better, gain more self-respect, and have better relationships. In fact, in mindfulness practice, it helps us subdue our anxiety and instead replace it with the things we value and things we can give back. With gratitude, we are more hopeful about the future.
Before COVID, did we appreciate the things we had? Have we learned to be more grateful for what we have? Like a fridge full of food, our friends and family, the roof over our heads, and having an extra 6-pack of Charmin? We focus now on simple acts like going for a walk and reading a book. This time has definitely reminded us to simply stop and smell the roses—it will make us feel better.
Read more about all the positive benefits practicing gratitude has on our health.
Before COVID, we could offer a handshake, a pat on the back, or a hug … Now, there are different means of expressing appreciation: a shout out at a Zoom work meeting, a thumbs up or heart emoji, a retweet, a daily or weekly email to your team … During moments of crisis such as this pandemic, a grateful perspective is critical to sustain our positive attitude—to energize, to heal, and to bring hope … Take this moment to focus on the goodness in the world and in your life.
Robert Emmons, Psychologist and World Expert on Gratitude
Saying Thank You
We have been witnesses to a litany of grievous circumstances this year, our country afflicted by injustice and plague. It is when we say thank you, when we count our blessings, and when we perform mitzvot, that we make ourselves feel more fulfilled. That doesn’t mean we’re done. But it does mean that taking a minute to recognize our blessings means we can be more satisfied with what we have. This has been an unforgettable and most challenging period in our lives. And one day we will come out on the other side of it. Having gone through it together with hearts full of hope and gratitude, we may even make it a step closer to tikkun olam. Because to be a Jew is to be grateful. In a nutshell, every day is Thanksgiving Day in Judaism! So now, more than ever, this Thanksgiving, let us say hakarat hatov, thank you.