This is the message that I gave over at the Sarasota Interfaith Thanksgiving Service this week:
Every year at this time, someone asks me if Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday. Before I give my answer, you should know that when you ask a rabbi a yes or no question, the answer often is, “it depends.”
In a very real sense, the answer is yes, because the Pilgrims, who knew their Bible, based Thanksgiving on the fall holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is a harvest festival, a holiday of joyous celebration and giving thanks for the earth’s bounty.
They found inspiration in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God commands the ancient Israelites to “rejoice before your God” at the time of the fall harvest.
The Pilgrims were people of faith, who believed themselves to be sustained through God’s great mercy. That they should rejoice and give thanks at harvest time was a natural impulse. That they took their ideas on how to do so from the Bible made great sense.
And, the answer to the question of whether or not Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday, is no, it’s not. It is a secular American holiday, and not a religious holiday at all. This is why it lends itself so well to interfaith services like tonight’s.
But that’s not what my questioners are really asking. What they want to know is, does this holiday fit into the Jewish tradition?
The answer to that is a resounding yes, just as it fits into so many religious traditions. Gratitude for our blessings is an integral part of Jewish prayer and observance, as it is in most religions. We express our gratitude to God all the time. In Judaism, the first words out of our mouths in the morning are words of thanks – we say:
מוֹדָה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, רוּח חַי וְקַיָּם
Modah ani lifanecha, ruach chai, vikayam
I give thanks before You, living and enduring God.
The prayer goes on to say “You have restored my soul to me. Great is your faithfulness.” At the moment of waking, we express gratitude for the simple gift of being alive. Jewish tradition teaches that we should be grateful for all our blessings, big and small. And waking up in the morning? That’s a big blessing.
We are surrounding by miracles every day, and every day can be one of thanksgiving, a chance to say “thank you” to God for the many blessings we have.
In addition to football games and parades, the Thanksgiving dinner is the essential, universal element of the holiday. This joyous communal meal serves as a reminder that we can impart meaning to all of our meals, every day, by taking time to say words of gratitude.
We give thanks to God for bringing friends and family and strangers together, for giving us food, and for giving us life, and laughter, and love.
And if that is all that we do, we have overlooked an essential element of what the holiday offers to us. Because not everyone is in a position to give thanks. There are many people in our community, right here in beautiful Sarasota, who are suffering. They are homeless, or living in poverty and worried about where to find tomorrow’s meal, or forced to choose between buying food or needed medications.
Thanksgiving is a tangible reminder that merely giving thanks for God’s blessings insufficient. We must become blessings ourselves, by giving support and sustenance to our fellow humans. Our gratitude must be combined with our desire to fulfill our role as partners with God.
As people of faith, Thanksgiving reminds us of the values that we all share, and which resonate during the rest of the year. Its deeper meaning, and the spiritual invitation of this secular day, is to rouse us to lives of blessing, long after our festive meals this Thursday.
As our service draws to an end, I close with the Birkat HaShalom, the blessing of peace from the Bible:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
May God bless you and protect you,
May God’s face give light to you, and show you favor,
May God’s face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace.