Jonathan Muskat

Three Ways to Maximize the Impact of Thanksgiving

I frequently ask myself the same question almost every holiday. Will it last? Will the lessons that I learned during this holiday leave a lasting impression on me going forward? Will I emerge from this holiday as a changed person, even if the change is slight? I generally ask this question during every Jewish holiday, but not so much during secular holidays, with the exception of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the character trait of hakarat hatov, of gratitude, with the rest of our American citizens. We should grab hold of every opportunity to strengthen this value in our own lives.

The particular challenge with the holiday of Thanksgiving happens to be the day after Thanksgiving, which is Black Friday. I read a very telling quote. “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” On Thanksgiving we are grateful for all that we have, and then on Black Friday we fight through the crowds to buy all that we can for as cheap as possible. We transition from a day of being grateful for what we have to a day when we have to have, whatever it is that we have to have. How can we make the meaningful experience of Thanksgiving, a day of hakarat hatov, impactful and long-lasting? I believe that we can turn to the Torah for guidance.

First, we can analyze the obligation of birkat hamazon. This Biblical obligation requires us to recite a “birkat hodayah,” a blessing of thanksgiving, after we eat and are satiated. What’s fascinating about this obligation is that we don’t stop after we thank God for the food that we ate. After we thank God for the food, we thank God for the exodus from Egypt, the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael, the covenant between God and us, the Torah that God taught us and the gift of Jerusalem. There is a profound difference between thanking someone for helping you once and thanking that person for doing so many things for you. In the first instance, you thank the person for one act. In the second instance, you do not simply thank the person for many acts. What you are really doing is expressing gratitude for the relationship that you have with that person because that person is someone who does so much for you. The Torah’s goal of gratitude is that our gratitude should strengthen our existing relationships.

Second, the Gemara in Brachot (54b) states that four situations require a person to bring a korban todah, literally a thanksgiving sacrifice. If a person crosses the sea, if he crosses the desert, if he recovers from an illness orif he is freed from jail, he must bring this sacrifice. The korban todah has two unique features. First, although it belongs to the category of shelamim (peace offerings), which are normally consumed over the course of two days, the korban todah must be consumed within one day and the following night. Second, in addition to the animal itself, the person must bring forty loaves of bread which must be eaten along with the offering. Essentially, the person must eat a lot of food in a very short period of time. The only way to accomplish this is to invite others to partake in a thanksgiving feast with him. The Torah is conveying to us here that sometimes in order to express gratitude we need to do more than verbally express our gratitude. Sometimes we need to take action. We need to give back to the original benefactor or we need to repay the kindness forward to others, to demonstrate through good deeds that we appreciate what we have been given.

Finally, the Torah inspires us to achieve an even higher level of gratitude. When Leah gave birth to her fourth child, she called him Yehuda, exclaiming, “ha’pa’am odeh et Hashem,” or “this time I will thank God.”  The Gemara in Brachot (7b) states that from the day that God created the world, no one thanked God until Leah thanked Him at that moment. What does this mean? Nobody thanked God beforehand? Not Adam, Noach, Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rivkah or Yaakov? How can that be? I think the gemara is trying to tell us that Leah was struggling. She was the unloved wife. Yaakov loved Rachel, not Leah and Leah hoped that after she bore Yaakov many children, Yaakov would love her. That’s why she names her earlier children Reuven, Shimon and Levi. She named her first child Reuven “ki ra’ah Hashem b’anyee,” because God saw her affliction. She named her second child Shimon since “shama Hashem ki snuah anochi,” because God heard that she was hated. She named her third child Levi because “ata ha’pa’am yilaveh ishi eilai ki yalad’ti lo she’losha banim,” believing that now Yaakov will love her because she bore him three children. However, Leah came to the tragic realization that Yaakov still loved Rachel more than her, so when she gave birth to a fourth child, she simply said thank you to God. She counted her blessings because she was able to bear children. She looked at her tragic situation and found a way to focus on her blessings and thanked God for that. Others may have thanked God before Leah, but Leah was the first person who found a way to change her entire way of thinking and her entire set of expectations and thank God despite her tragic predicament. Leah’s attitude was reflected Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement that a person should always accustom himself to say, “kol d’avid rachmana l’tav avid,” or “everything that God does is for the best” (Brachot 60b).

How can a day of gratitude like Thanksgiving leave a lasting impression on our souls before its arch-nemesis, Black Friday? The Torah gives us three answers. First, don’t just say thank you to others for their acts of kindness. Express gratitude on this day for the relationships in your lives. Tell your loved ones how much you cherish them, their friendship, their support and their kindness towards you. When you do that, you will utilize your expressions of gratitude to strengthen the wonderful relationships that you already have.

Second, don’t just verbalize your gratitude. Engage in acts of gratitude. The more that you do, the more you demonstrate that you care. In this light, I am so proud of what our community does every Thanksgiving. In the spirit of gratitude, Young Israel of Oceanside members gather to express our community’s gratitude to our local hospital staff at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital and to our local volunteer Oceanside fire department for all that they do to keep us healthy and safe. Young Israel of Oceanside parents, grandparents, and children have sponsored brunch for these local staff and local volunteers and will be delivering it to the firehouse and hospital on Thanksgiving day.

Finally, let us try to use this day to reflect upon some challenge that is constantly on our mind and let us try to find a silver lining in that challenge. At the very least, let us try to focus more positively on the blessings that we have in our lives instead of that particular challenge that often gets us down. Hopefully, with the help of God, we can work on these three aspects of gratitude which will ultimately lead to a happier, healthier and holier life.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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