This Thanksgiving, like every other, families will gather around their tables and express gratitude for all the blessings that fill their lives, for all the good that exists in the world. We may need a reminder even more so this year. There is indeed much for which to be grateful, and saying “Thank You” – in whatever language or idiom, to whatever God or spirit, and to one another — are two of the holiest words we can utter.
But beware the limits of gratitude, especially now.
Jewish wisdom warns us not to become slaves to our endless wants and desires – material, emotional, and even spiritual. In one famous line from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, we learn: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with what they have.” The masters of our ethical tradition known as Musar Literature, call this “histapkut” – contentedness, like the Hebrew word “maspik”, meaning, “enough.” Learning to be satisfied with what we have is important.
But reconciling ourselves to the reality of our lives can be dangerous when it leads to moral complacency in the face of needed action and change. To accept the suffering of the innocent or the persecution of the vulnerable is to turn histapkut from a virtue into a sin. Rabbi Hanock of Alexandrow said, “The real exile of Israel in Egypt began when they learned to endure it.” (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)
Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other expressions of hatred continue to call to us from our Thanksgiving histapkut, from our festive contentedness. They demand an outpouring of holy discontent in the form of our ongoing and active resistance to those who would deny others the very freedom, opportunity and safety for which we are all preparing to say thanks.
Eat. Enjoy. Be grateful, but not too grateful. Be content, but not too content.