Where We Fit In: Thanksgiving and Judaism

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp November 6, 2018


thanksgivingJews love their holidays—Jewish holidays, American holidays, you name it.  Yet whereas other ‘American’ holidays like Halloween, Xmas and New Year’s may raise eyebrows with their pagan origins and its appropriateness for Jews to celebrate, Thanksgiving seems to be the all-American holiday that the Jewish community can celebrate with good conscience.

Yes, you read that right.  Despite Halloween being a fun opportunity to dress up, Xmas a time for Chinese food and blue and white lights and New Years a time for champagne and streamers, these holidays are all pagan ceremonies, which were often marked throughout our history with pogroms and anti-Semetic events.

Thanksgiving, however, seems like a wonderful concept for the Jewish community to embrace. In 1861, when Lincoln made the day a national holiday, he wrote, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things (our preservation of a nation or our great resources). They are the gracious gifts of the Most High G-d, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Sounds pretty Jewish!

Fast forward to 2018. If you ask the average person on the street what Thanksgiving is about, hakarat hatov to the Ribbono Shel Olam (Hebrew for recognizing the good done for us by G-d) is probably the last thing on the list.  Today, Thanksgiving is about its turkey (or vegan turkey) meal, a day off from work/school, football (three games instead of one), family (perhaps) and most importantly, the day before Black Friday.

It is against this background that a Jewish person might happily say, “I love to shop and eat, so let’s celebrate Thanksgiving.  After all it’s not a religious holiday!”  From 30,000 feet, however the irony and tragedy couldn’t be greater. First of all, the concept of appreciation to G-d isn’t something as Jews we need or do once a year.  It is or should be the foundation of every moment in our lives!

Tony Robbins didn’t create the concept that successful people start their day with gratitude, or that by focusing on the good in your life you’ll live happily.  We did! Our earliest writings, legal texts, and spiritual guides are chock-full of this concept.  The very first idea presented in the legal text that lays out all of Jewish observance and daily practice is “I always am focusing on G-d.”  We don’t need, or shouldn’t need, a once a year opportunity to thank G-d for the bounty in our lives.  As Jews, we should be doing it weekly (on Shabbat), daily (in the morning blessings), or CONSTANTLY by how we live our life.

According to Jewish law, the first thing we say in the morning is (rough translation) “Thank You G-d for another day!” and the last thing we say in the evening is “I forgive anyone who wronged me and thank you G-d for the day!”

Let’s be honest.  The modern Thanksgiving has morphed into something that is the opposite of thanking G-d for His bounty despite our sins. It is about feeding ourselves, entertaining ourselves, and acquiring for ourselves. Sure, there’s family, but family is starting to seem like a liability or oversight.  Cue every movie made about Thanksgiving where drama and comedy ensue when a person has to return for a family gathering.

In the secular and opulent background of America, the religious undertones of the day are devoured by the need to focus on ourselves. From a spiritual perspective, focusing on the ego and desire lock us from spirituality.

Not to sound like a revolutionary, but perhaps it’s time to bring back Thanksgiving.  Better yet, it’s time to recognize that even if we are following Lincoln’s word to the T, for Jews who are, as scripture says “Children of the Living G-d” once a year just isn’t enough to reflect on the bounty of our lives and see everything as extensions and expressions of Divine love.  By changing our focus on the day itself, and bringing more appreciation to G-d into our lives, we should not only expand our consciousness but also experience a Divine flow of more blessing and happiness.

Enjoy your turkey!


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