Don’t Let the Turkey Get You Down

Ok, I’ll admit it. Our family didn’t do turkey Thanksgiving. It’s not that we’re not thankful Americans – America has lots to be grateful for, and I have many reasons to be thankful.

But less than two months ago was Sukkot, חג האסיף – the Harvest festival, how many Thanksgiving holidays do we need?

It’s not that I’m worried about saying thank you too often. On the contrary, we need to say it more often. We need to say it as individuals and we need to say it as a community and society. We need to say it to each other, and we need to say it to the One who bestows all blessing.

But, an annual holiday is not for saying thank you. We always need to be saying thank you.

A holiday is established to remind us why we say it and how to say it.

Acknowledging good already received, is always right. Doing it with humility, modesty and unpretentiously, makes it even better – especially if it’s a preface to a plea for even more good. But is that the why we say it?

Let’s look at how Yaakov/Jacob said it. As he pleads to G-d for protection from his brother, Yaakov begins by first acknowledging the blessings he received –

 קטונתי מכל החסדים אשר עשית עמדי – “I have been diminished by all the kindnesses that You have done with me”.

Rashi (from the Talmud) tells us that Yaakov wasn’t simply being modest. He was genuinely worried that the good he had already received truly lessened him and made him smaller.

קטונתי – “I have become smaller” – he cries, as he contemplates how far he’s come and how wealthy he’s become.

Why would it make him smaller?

For too many of us, when giving thanks, we focus on what we’ve been given instead of focusing on who has given it. The greater the gifts, the more heartfelt the thanks.

That’s why on Thanksgiving, after saying the Grace, gratefulness is expressed by eating a meal with copious amounts of food, generally centered around a huge fowl overflowing with stuffing. The meal of course is symbolic of the munificence of the blessings.

And the day after Thanksgiving? The day after Thanksgiving officially ushers in the season of conspicuous consumption – let’s enjoy those blessings.

Yakkov, on the other hand, focuses on the Giver. He recognizes that everything he has comes from Him. He acknowledges that his life, his entire life, is but a mission from Him.  The blessings he receives, every one of those blessings are commensurate with the task before him.

And when he sees how great those blessings are, he realizes how immense that task is – and then he cries קטונתי – I am small! Without you I can do nothing!

Finally, having disarmed Esau, and returning safely to his land, “ולמקנהו עשה סוכות“. Yaakov places his possessions in Sukkot and calls the entire place Sukkot.

Why Sukkot? Gratitude on Sukkot – is symbolized through the medium of a frail structure where we eat at the mercy of the elements. You don’t need to be a theological giant to recognize that the only reason your’e not wet and cold in the Sukkah is because G-d Himself decided that it would be a nice day.

In the Sukkah (as always) we say the Grace after the meal. It’s not about what we’ve been given, it’s about why we’ve been given it.

And the day after Sukkot? The day after Sukkot we begin the work of the new year.

The common perspective on blessing is a reward for what we’ve done, Torah’s perspective on blessing is a tool we need to use.

That’s a daunting task – and while it’s true sometimes a turkey is just a turkey, – for this task it’ll just pull me down,  I’ll pass and stick with Sukkot.

About the Author
Yisrael Deren serves as Regional Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Connecticut and Senior Rabbi of Chabad of Stamford. Born in Davenport Iowa, raised in Pittsburgh, and educated under the Rebbe's supervision in Brooklyn and Israel, he, together with his wife Aviva, have been Shluchim of the Rebbe for close to 50 years.