What We Are Thankful for on Thanksgiving

On Friday September 25th, 1789 a fierce debate broke out in Congress, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey introduced a resolution that enraged his colleague Aedanus Burke from South Carolina. The controversial resolution called for the creation of a congressional committee “to wait on the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people a day of public prayer and Thanksgiving.” This was too much for Congressman Burke, who believed such a holiday seemed far to European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.” Burke was referencing the fact that at European thanksgiving feasts, both sides of a war often sang Te Deum, a catholic hymn of praise. He thought the fact that both the winners and losers in a war gave thanksgiving demonstrated that this was simply an empty ritual. Burke’s argument while somewhat obscure should resonate with all of us. Is Thanksgiving simply one more rote ritual that we go through on an annual basis, is it just a day off to mark on our calendars or can it be something more?

Leah named her fourth son Yehuda, and Yehuda’s name was no accident. It shares a common Hebrew root with the Odah, which means to give thanks or praise. Leah, Rashi says, said “since I have received more than my share of children, now I will offer thanks”. The Gemara goes even a step further. “Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: From the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is stated: “And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she said, ‘This time I will give thanks to God,’ and so he was called Yehuda.” The Gemara’s claim that Leah was first person to ever thank God seems astonishing when we consider how central the concept of gratitude is in Judaism. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing to Your name, O Most High.” We say every week in the Shir shel Yom for Shabbat. According to a Midrash this Psalm was actually recited by Adam in the Garden of Eden! But even if we temporarily ignore this midrash, there were generations of people who lived before Leah, figures who had tremendous spiritual lives and deep relationships with God could it really be that none of them offered thanks to God?

Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai one of the great rabbinic figures of the 18th century, who is commonly known as the Chida was also bothered by this question. In his work Petach Einayim he explains that there is a fundamental difference between what Adam did when he thanked God and how Leah approached God after Yehuda was born. Adam gave thanks to God as a general matter, but he didn’t thank God for any particular gift or moment and this was the approach that people followed throughout the generations whether they turned to God with sacrifices or words theirs was a general and impersonal thanksgiving. Leah’s approach was wholly different. After Yehuda’s birth she thanked God for the particular gifts in her life that she had received. Her words of thanks were deeply personal and specific.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that thanking God for the particular things we have been given has always been an essential element of the holiday of Thanksgiving. “Our nation however,” He explained to his Hasidim. “is built on the principles established by the founding fathers. When they landed on these shores one of their first acts was to set and proclaim a holiday of Thanksgiving to the Creator and Master of the world who had saved them from danger and brought them to these safe shores. Here they could live without fear, religious persecution or oppressive decrees. Here they could conduct their lives according to their sacred beliefs. Their thanksgiving expressed this faith: God not only created the world but also directs the events of the world. They recognized the providence of God in their salvation. This holiday has become tradition and every year we offer sincere thanksgiving to the Almighty for showing those early settlers His abundant kindness.”

Thanking God for what we have been given is not merely an expression of gratitude, it is also an expression of what we value. “Whatever we are grateful for, we make sacred,” explains the scholar of contemporary American religious life Casper ter Kuile. When Leah thanked God for having given her Yehuda and her other children, she consecrated them. She gave added meaning to their lives. As children they may not have known it, but this sense of added sanctity changed the way Leah looked at them. She knew they were there for some greater purpose and that she was just one part of a far larger story. On Thursday as many of us gather with family and friends let’s ensure that our Thanksgiving is not the empty holiday that Congressman Aedanus Burke feared it would be in 1789, but instead embodies the religious feelings that the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed were present from the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated; and let’s strive to follow the path of Leah, and give thanks for the particular gifts in life which we are most grateful for, and in the process imbue them with holiness and purpose.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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