With Thanksgiving barely a week behind us and Chanukah just ending, it seems a particularly appropriate moment to reflect on this year’s most unusual juxtaposition of sacred and secular celebrations. Beyond the kitsch of “Thanksgivukah,” as so many referred to it, there is a common thread between the two holidays, and it is a significant one. Both are about gratitude.
The story of the first Thanksgiving, at least as the normative American myth has handed it down to us, centers on a feast of thanksgiving shared by the Pilgrims and the native Americans among whom they lived, celebrating the fall harvest and its goodness. The historicity of this myth (or lack thereof) is an interesting subject, but the truth is that even if it’s not accurate, or if they were simply giving thanks for having endured a particularly difficult year — the fact that American folk mythology has chosen to immortalize that episode as one of gratitude is in and of itself significant. Gratitude, whether it is for plenty or for mere survival, is still gratitude, and still important.
The story of Hanukkah has its own historicity questions, rooted in the question of what exactly was intended to be celebrated and/or remembered about the Maccabees’ campaign against the Greeks. Is it their military might, or is it the saving grace of God that won the day against the enemy forces? And what about the miracle of the oil? Is that a later add-on to the story, or an intrinsic part of it?
Once again, it seems to me that the historicity or lack thereof of the Hanukkah story as it has been handed down to us is of less significance than the conventional “story of Hanukkah” as we all learned it as children. The festival was established, according to the last phrase of the special “Al Hanissim” (For the Miracles) prayer that we recite at every service during the holiday, to give thanks: …V’kav’u shmonat y’mwi Hanukkah eleh l’hodot ul’hallel l’shimha haggadol- and (they) established these eight days of Hanukkah in order to acknowledge and glorify Your great name. Once again, it’s all about giving thanks.
The conventional wisdom among most people is that the primary impulse for prayer is petition. That is to say, we pray when we want or need something. The truth, however, is something very other. By an overwhelming percentage, most of the prayers that are to be found in the traditional prayerbook are praise of and gratitude to God, and not at all petitionary. The need, or desire, to express gratitude to God is what moves most of us to “open a line of communication,” as it were. Saying thank you enriches us in a way that little else does. It is the primary religious and spiritual motivating factor in prayer, and in living a spiritual life in general.
The times in which we live don’t necessarily lend themselves easily to feelings of gratitude. For one thing, American society places a premium on acquiring ever more and newer “stuff.” We have been conditioned to feel as if, to quote a particularly indicative advertising slogan, “he who has the most toys wins.” As long as a person feels that something is missing from his life, something that he “has to have,” it’s hard to feel grateful for what you do have.
Additionally, these are times of considerable anxiety in the world, and some of those “toys” that we have been conditioned to believe that we can’t live without only exacerbate that sense of unease. Cable news networks and talk radio bombard us relentlessly with attention-grabbing sound bytes that accentuate the negative and often most lurid stories. And if, by some chance, we escape the reach of our televisions and radios, our ever-present smartphones are there at the ready to remind us of what we might have managed to forget. Really … Couldn’t we all use just a few minutes of not thinking about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, or the disappearing ozone layer? How can you feel grateful for the blessings in your life when it feels so much like your life, and your children’s lives, are in serious jeopardy?
For me, the antidote to this pervasive sense of free-floating anxiety is daily prayer. It is why I willingly (if not always excitedly) wake up very early in the morning to make it to my synagogue’s daily minyan at 7 a.m.
I’m sure that some of you are thinking to yourselves “well, of course he would say that. He’s a rabbi. Of course a rabbi is going to advocate for daily prayer.” I understand why one might think that, but the unvarnished truth is that my passion for daily prayer has little to do with being a rabbi. I wasn’t “born this way.” It has everything to do with finding a half-hour or so of quiet, contemplative time to be at peace with myself, with God and the world before the “real world” intrudes, and all those externally imposed anxieties have their way with us. Those precious few moments are my chance to take stock of all the things I do have, all the blessings that I routinely depend on and take for granted, and feel gratitude- that purest of religious emotions. As I leave the morning service, I invariably feel — at least until the day with all its pressures sets in — cleansed, and at peace.
It’s a wonderful feeling, it’s free, and we are all fully empowered to avail ourselves of it. In this age of anxiety, prayer is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. God patiently awaits us…