America’s Thanksgiving is traced to a 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Mass which was prompted by a particularly bountiful harvest that year. 242 years later, President Abraham Lincoln expressed his gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg by announcing that the nation will celebration an official Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November.
But did you know that as Jews, our origin can be traced back to the notion of giving thanks? The reason we are called “Jews” is because most of us are descended from Judah. (Of the 12 children who came from Jacob, 10 of the tribes of Israel were “lost”).
Why did the tribe of Judah survive more than all the other tribes? According to Rabbi Ari Enkin, the rabbinic director of United with Israel, one of the answers offered is that the secret to the tribe of Judah’s survival is alluded to in its name: When Leah, his mother, gave birth to him she said, “This time I will give thanksgiving to the Lord; therefore she called his name Judah” (Genesis 29:35) – from the Hebrew hodah, giving thanks.
The Modeh Ani is one of the first blessings a child is taught and is said every morning upon waking:
“I thank you, living and enduring king, for You have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness.”
A simple way to bring Jewish tradition to your Thanksgiving is to add some Jewish blessings. The HaMotzi, the blessing over bread, is one good example: “Blessed are you Adonai our G-d, ruler of the world, for bringing forth bread from the earth. We bless G-d and thank G-d for G-d for giving us bread.”
You can also bless the wine, “Blessed are you Adonai our G-d, ruler of the world, for creating the fruit of the vine,” and give a thanks a word of thanks after the meal by saying the Birkat HaMazon.
Aldous Huxley noted a profound truth when he wrote, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” Jewish life actively fights against this. Giving thanks to G-d for the bounty of the earth is a very Jewish thing to do, as is spending time during the meal talking about the things we are grateful for in our lives. The pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom, something we Jews can relate to - especially at this particular moment of our country’s history!
Let us embrace the words of Thornton Wilder: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”