Thanksgiving: A Jewish thought and a question; a cultural reflection
I got to know thanksgiving from American movies, it was pretty clear to me that Thanksgiving was an important part of the culture and that a big bird is eaten on this day. So my Argentinian side had an ignorant but very positive prior idea about this Holiday, the turkey always looked incredible!
The first time I was in the US on thanksgiving and I got involved in a celebration, I understood an additional thing about this day. It may sound confusing but the celebration was in our apartment, and the person who was leading the preparations ask me to take care of the turkey… “Sure” I said with a deep lack of awareness. I like cooking but never before had I cooked a 14 pound thing. So guess what? Yes, we started the celebration at lunch time and it was perforce vegetarian; around dinner time we finally had turkey.
During the whole day the dear friend who organized this kept making amazing efforts to help us to experience and to understand the idea of Thanksgiving. I really liked it, but this time not out of my Argentinian origins but out of my Jewish identity which I found so easy to connect with this Idea.
I finally understood why so many American Jews have adopted this holiday recognizing its universality and secularity and are beneficiated of its meaningfulness.
I would like to Share with you an idea about “thanksgiving” as a reflective action related to Judaism, taken from my work “Asking from Thence”
“Let’s disconnect, for a moment, the prayer from the Jewish frame or even from the idea of God. If I had to point out which characteristics a human being needs in order to build his emotional identity, one of the things that I would suggest for sure is worship….. The prayer helps us think about our reality, express our feelings and become more reflective beings”. We can usually recognize in Jewish prayer four topics. One of them is thanks-giving:
“Thanks-giving is the ability to look at life identifying the things which shape our identities, which provide us with security, love and livelihood, and to cherish them. This is the complementary and necessary deed to keep these things. A person who is not grateful consequently is also not aware of the essential things in life. He may inadvertently lose them, and with that perhaps himself”.
Judaism gives us many opportunities to recognize the things that make the difference for each of us; daily blessings, prayers, Hallel (Praise) singing in holidays and of course Shabbat itself are all such opportunities… They are all invitations to contemplate our lives recognizing the things that feed our spirits and bodies.
I find it very touching that an entire nation takes a day and dedicates genuine efforts to cherish. And I remain wondering about this notion in Judaism.
So we have thanks-giving in Judaism but it is mostly addressed to God. I personally feel comfortable using this language and I connect to a cultural – romantic –folkloric way to express ourselves, but many Jews don’t feel that way and they may unfortunately miss the value because of the bundle it comes in.
Rambam (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon) asks – is it God who needs our prayers? The answer is definitely No! WE need them, we need this introspection, meditation or however you choose to describe it. Then does God need our thanks-giving? And the answer is the same! No, He doesn’t but we do. Our spirits are better when we are able to recognize the sources of our happiness, energy, love, inspiration, etc. It is such a good thing to keep this in mind and it doesn’t really matter which formula you use to bring it into your awareness. Returning to “Thanksgiving” the holiday – it doesn’t really matter which cultural framework connects you to this. The reason is that we are talking about a universal value. This is where I stay thinking – how do we diminish the gap beyond our cultural–religious language? How do we get to introduce in our lives deep values which have the potential to be relevant for everyone but which we are used to see wrapped in very specific frameworks (like worship)?
You probably wouldn’t set a Thanksgiving table without a turkey or a cranberry sauce; we need the tangible symbols and folklore in order to sustain our abstract values. But maybe your turkey is not ready on time, or you are vegetarian, or you just don’t like turkey. So we also need the flexibility to rethink our traditions and to find our personal way to approach our culture in order to keep the relevant connection with our values. May we have the wisdom to choose the frameworks which are good and suitable for us, but to keep in mind that frameworks frameworks are, and that their true purpose is to hold something of real value. They fulfill a sacred purpose but they are not sacred by themselves. It is the content that they hold which is sacred.