Imagine the year 1621, the year of the first Thanksgiving. Imagine being one of those pilgrims who first set sail for America. Despite warning of the hazards, they sailed through rough waters, accidentally ending up in Massachusetts instead of the intended destination of Virginia. Arriving in winter, these pilgrims endured cold weather, limited food, insufficient shelter -all leading to illness and despair for many. Within a short time, many had died. As spring approached, those remaining planted wheat and corn. Neither was successful, and other attempts to replenish their supplies were equally unsuccessful. Imagine being one of those pilgrims. Would there have been much for which to feel grateful?
And, today – many of us also struggle. We experience
personal challenges, illnesses, family conflicts, failures.
And, for many, gratitude isn’t an emotion that comes
naturally. And so, Thanksgiving becomes more about
turkey and football than about saying thank you.
Yet, Judaism reminds us that gratitude isn’t really a
choice. It is not conditional, and it doesn’t matter if I
have all that I want or not.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam – Blessed
are You, Adonai, Sovereign of the universe… If you look
at the words of our blessings, nowhere is the word thanks
or gratitude even mentioned. We don’t explicitly thank
G-d, for example, for the bread when we say the Motzi:
Baruch Atah Adonai – Blessed are you Adonai Our God,
sovereign of the universe, who brings bread from the
earth. Instead. our blessings are a statement of theological
truth, an acknowledgement that without G-d’s active
participation, the bread that is in front of us would not
be. Blessings are our way of expressing delight, and
gratitude, and appreciation.
Intentional gratitude transfers ownership from G-d to
the one who says the blessing. So, we bring to the words
of the blessing formula the feeling of thanks, and that
changes our experience; it changes us. Perhaps it is for
this reason that Midrash Vayikra Rabbah teaches: “In
the World to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but the
Thanksgiving Sacrifice will not be annulled. All prayers
will be annulled, but prayers of thanksgiving will not be
We cannot really live without gratitude. Our lives are
enriched, our experience more meaningful, when we
acknowledge with gratitude the bounty we receive – health,
food, shelter, the ability to make a living and live in comfort.
It would have been so easy for the pilgrims of 1621 to
focus on what they didn’t have. Their story reminds us
that any moment is one to focus on what we have been
given and to say thank you for it.
May we each know the goodness of Thanksgiving Day,
and as we sit to eat our turkey (which in modern Hebrew
is the same word as “thanks” – hodu), may we know just
how good our lives are, and how great are our blessings.
Todah Rabbah (Many thanks)