Thanksgiving with a Jewish Twist

The more we celebrate the good, the more good we discover.

I love Thanksgiving.

The food, the noisy meal with family and friends, and a holiday devoted to gratitude. This American holiday – whose history and legacy is more complex (and problematic) than we were taught – at its best is an opportunity to embrace the Jewish value of gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most noble and important traits a human can practice.

Yet, as this year is also tinged with sadness and loss – it might be more difficult to access gratitude. At a time when the Coronavirus continues to afflict our world, we know that to expand our celebration beyond immediate family creates risk. For many of us, this means that tradition of being with extended family is lost. We typically travel to Sacramento to be with my family. Instead, we will have a small celebration here to avoid putting anyone at risk. I’ll miss seeing my parents, my sister and others who have gathered in the past.

Given loss, it may be reflecting upon and embracing gratitude is more important this year than ever before. Study after study confirms the positive impact of gratitude. It improves physical health, immunity against disease, while reducing toxic emotions. Grateful people experience less depression and frustration. It even helps people sleep better and feel better about ourselves. Grateful people tend to have better relationships. Saying “thank you” enhances friendships and strengthens resilience. That is quite a list! – and we need each of those benefits of gratitude as we continue to navigate the anxiety, sadness, losses and upset connected with the ongoing pandemic.

Let’s deepen our gratitude practice – especially this year. Thanksgiving allows us to revisit the daily Jewish rituals connected with gratitude. Every day as we awake we say Modeh Ani – thanking God for restoring our souls. In a recent article in the Forward, actress Gal Gadot shared that every morning she recites the Modeh Ani prayer. She explains by reflecting that saying “Thank you for everything, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you” means that nothing is to be taken for granted.

What if in anticipating Thanksgiving, every one of us adopts the daily practice of saying this prayer? The text is short:

חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ מֶלֶךְ לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי מוֹדֶה – Modeh Ani L’fanecha Melech Chai v’kayam she’he’che’zarta bi nishmati b’chelma, rabbah emuna’techa

‘I thank You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; great is Your faith.”

The Forward article brings Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook of the early 20th century, who noted that the Hebrew grammar of the prayer’s opening words is curiously inverse — the prayer literally says, “Thankful am I,” rather than “I am thankful.” The odd inversion is deliberate, he reflects: A reminder that the first word to leave our lips every morning should not be “I,” but rather gratitude, a humbling moment in which we bow our heads before the Divine.

Living during these difficult moments, let’s hold onto this transformative, life enhancing Jewish prayer and to the theme to Thanksgiving – that life is a miracle and that there is much to be grateful for worthy.

The more we celebrate the good, the more good we discover – and the more we become aware of others with whom we can share goodness. This Thanksgiving, as we are aware of so many suffering hardship – let’s share our blessings with those who are experiencing financial hardship. I would love for us to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank, the equivalent of several hundred turkeys that will be provided for the thousands of people in our area who rely on this organization.

Our feast will be delicious. As we tie them to gratitude and caring for other – the food and company will be enhanced – even amidst the difficulties.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Second Harvest of Silicon Valley:

Forward article: