Chanukah begins at sundown tonight. One of the liturgical changes associated with Chanukah is that we add the prayer "Al Hanisim" ("for the miracles") to the Birkat Hoda'ah (Thanksgiving blessing) of the Amidah. (We also add "Al Hanisim" to the "Birkat Hamazon" [Grace after meals]). Last week, when I delivered the following dvar torah at the Central Duluth Interfaith Thanksgiving service, I emphasized how in the Jewish religion it's "Thanksgiving Day" every day. If we think about how the liturgy inserts the Chanukah miracles into the daily Thanksgiving blessing, we come to the conclusion that, in our lives as Jews, every day is Thanksgiving, and Chanukah even more so...
Chag Urim Sameach/ Happy Chanukah!
Entering into God’s Presence with Thanksgiving
(Dvar Torah for Central Duluth Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, November 2010)
I feel honored and delighted to have been invited to share some thoughts with you tonight on the meaning of Thanksgiving. However, before I plunge ahead with that endeavor, I just want to say how thankful I am to live in a community where such wonderful relationships exist across the lines of religious and cultural differences. Our service tonight is a prime illustration of this: We gather tonight in the beautiful sanctuary of Pilgirm Congregational Church with a noble agenda: To share with one another, freely and respectfully, some of our deepest values – recognizing that we need not be uniform in order to be united; recognizing that in religious diversity there is spiritual strength.
The American holiday of Thanksgiving certainly lends itself to this kind of shared celebration. For the basic principle of the importance of giving thanks for our blessings is a principle shared by all of our communities of faith.
In my own Jewish tradition, Thanksgiving is traditionally evoked three times a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year in the prayer known as the “Birkat Hoda’ah” or “Thanksgiving Blessing”. This “Thanksgiving Blessing” constitutes an integral part of the central Jewish prayer known as the Amidah or standing prayer. Here’s an English translation of it:
"We gratefully acknowledge You, that You are our Eternal God and God of our ancestors. You are the Rock of our life, the Power that shields us in every age. We thank You and sing Your praises: for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are in Your keeping, for the signs of Your Presence we encounter every day, and for Your wondrous gifts at all times, morning, noon and night. You are Goodness: Your mercies never end. You are Compassion: Your love will never fail. You have always been our hope. For all these things, O Sovereign God, let your Name be forever praised and blessed. O God, our Redeemer and Helper, let all who live affirm You and praise Your Name in truth. Barukh atah Adonai, Hatov shimkha ulekha na’eh l’hodot/ Blessed are You, Eternal One, Your Name is goodness, and to you it is fitting to give thanks.
We also traditionally give thanks in Judaism by saying a blessing before we eat and saying the Birkat Hamazon or grace after meals after we eat. As a proof text for the practice of saying a blessing before we eat, our ancient sages cite the verse from Psalm 24 – “L’adonai ha’aretz u’mloah.” /“The earth and all its fullness belongs to God.” And as a proof text for the practice of saying grace after the meal, they cite the verse from Deuteronomy 8 – “V’achalta, v’savata uveyrachta et adonai elohekha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lakh”/ “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall praise the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”
And every Friday evening, the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service which welcomes the Jewish Sabbath opens with the words of Psalm 95 --- -- Lechu Neranena Ladonai, Naria L’tzur yisheynu, Nekadma fanav b’todah bizmirot nariah lo/ “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Eternal One, let us shout for joy to our Rock of deliverance, Let us enter God’s presence with Thanksgiving”
And so, every day of the year we do well to keep God’s blessing in the forefront of our conscience --- and especially so on this American Holiday that we can all share with one another.
On the other hand… there is a danger in focusing totally on expressions of thanksgiving and praise. Gratitude can easily evolve into complacence. We should not lull ourselves into any smug assurance that, as in the sarcastic view expressed in Leonard Bernstein’s opera “Candide” --- “All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
That is clearly not the case. Millions around the world go hungry every day. Millions around the world live in poverty. And those of us who DO have food to eat and a roof over our heads – must not be satisfied with simply thanking God for our blessings.
Psalm 37:25, a verse which is part of the traditional Jewish grace after meals does seem to make the Panglossian claim – “All’s for the Best in this Best of All Possible Worlds.” The psalmist asserts: Na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti velo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav, vzar’o mevakesh lachem/ “I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.”
Yes – you will find this verse in the Bible -- but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Rather, our task is to make it true.
And so we should understand the words of Psalm 37 not as a pious platitude but rather as a moral challenge:
“I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.”
The challenge confronts us:
In our imperfect world there are righteous people who have been forsaken and there are children begging for bread.
And our faith in God must be an impetus to action and not an excuse for inertia.
The 18th century chasidic Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov put this idea in even more audacious terms. He used to tell his followers: There are times when we must actually believe that there is no God! For example, when someone who is needy comes to ask you for bread, you must not send him away with such comforting words as, ‘God will provide,' nor may you use God as an excuse by saying, ‘If God wanted you to have my money, then you would have it.' At that moment, you must act as if there is no God, and you are the only one who can help!"
In the Hebrew language, the infinitive “lehitpalel” --- meaning “to pray” is actually a reflexive verb that can be translated as “to judge oneself.” Thus, from this perspective, every prayer contains within it an element of challenge. Yes, God’s blessings surround us each moment. But no, we have not yet completed the task of “Tikkun Olam” of repairing the world. We have not yet prepared the way for Messianic days. We have not yet fashioned a world in which every man, woman and child is truly treated as being created “btzelem elohim”/”in the image of God.”
Each of us looks (or at least ought to be looking) for that delicate balance between faithful gratitude and holy dissatisfaction. We seek to combine our sense of Thanksgiving for our blessings with our sense of indignation at the hunger and poverty that remain as a blight upon the world.
In the classical rabbinic text “Pirke Avot” there is a famous aphorism – “Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah.” – which, roughly translated, means “You are not required to finish the work but neither are you free to absent yourself from it.”
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, may each of us be fully present, and not absent. May we be present to God and to our neighbor. Thanking the Eternal for our Blessings. Determined to partner with God to repair the world through acts of generosity, caring and loving kindness.
I’d like to conclude with the words of the poet Judy Chicago. May these words be a vision for us of what, with God’s help, we can together bring to pass. Her poem is entitled “Merger: A Vision of the Future”:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded with power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
Thank you very much. And Happy Thanksgiving.
© Rabbi David Steinberg, 5771/2010