As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans are experiencing the dilemma that we Jews experienced this past Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Sukkot. And indeed, many of us are asking this painful question again now. That is, how can we celebrate these holidays without family?
The whole nature of celebrating Thanksgiving is questionable, and there is much halachic discussion about its appropriateness. Rav Yitzchak Hutner was opposed to celebrating Thanksgiving. Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote seemingly contradictory responsa on this topic and ultimately ruled that the less that you feel that you must have holiday rituals the better. Rav Soloveitchik felt that one could celebrate Thanksgiving and he had Thanksgiving dinner with his children.
I believe that we need to celebrate Thanksgiving today more than ever, especially those of us who may not be able to celebrate with our family. This year more than ever we need to focus on the middah of gratitude, which is the real essence of the holiday – after all, it is called Thanksgiving. Additionally, the Torah has a definitive view of what real gratitude is.
The Gemara in Brachot 7a states that from the day that God created the world, nobody expressed thanks to God until Leah came and after giving birth to her fourth son, she said, “Ha’pa’am odeh et Hashem” or “now I will thank God.” In a very technical sense, this is the first instance when the Torah records that someone thanks God, but I think that the Torah is telling us more than that. Leah doesn’t thank God after her first three children. She only does so after giving birth to her fourth child. After each of her first three children is born, she names the child in reference to her relationship with her husband. She names her first child Reuven, because “ra’ah Hashem b’an’yi ki atah ye’ehavani ishi” – God saw her affliction because now her husband will love her. She thinks that Yaakov, who never wanted to marry her in the first place, will love her after the birth of a son. Apparently, it didn’t work and with the birth of a second child, Leah names him Shimon, because “shama Hashem ki se’nu’ah anochi” – God heard that she was hated, and maybe now with two children, Yaakov will love her more. But still Yaakov did not love her as she had expected and with the birth of a third child, Leah names him Levi, because “ata ha’pa’am yilaveh ishi eilai ki yaladti lo shlosha banim” – now that she has three children, Yaakov will definitely love her. But maybe he still didn’t and maybe Leah came to the realization that no matter how many children she will bear for Yaakov, he will not love her like the way he loves Rachel.
When Leah has a fourth child, she names him Yehudah and all that she says is “ha’pa’am odeh et Hashem” – now she will express gratitude and commitment to God. She no longer mentions Yaakov, but she expresses gratitude. Why? Because she has changed her attitude. She realizes that it wasn’t meant to be that Yaakov would love her like he loves Rachel. This is a painful, tragic, but sobering realization. At the same time, she counts her blessings despite her tragic marriage to Yaakov. She has four beautiful children. Perhaps when the Gemara in Brachot states that Leah was the first person to express thanks to God, it means that she was the first person to change her entire way of thinking and her entire set of expectations. Perhaps she was the first to understand that she must thank God even while so much seems bad. Wayne Dyer, popular self-help advocate once said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” He may have said it, but thousands of years ago, Leah our Matriarch lived it.
We need to celebrate this particular Thanksgiving more than ever, especially those of us who cannot celebrate with family due to COVID concerns. This is the year when we can work on our midah of hakarat hatov. This is the year when we need to recognize all the blessings that we have even if things don’t go as planned. This is the year when we need to go around the Thanksgiving dinner table and express why we are so thankful. True gratitude is more than simply saying thanks when you receive something good that is unexpected. True gratitude is saying thanks for the expected and maybe it is these unexpected times that have made us realize that. And we have our Matriarch Leah to thank for that.