An old Jewish story, a midrash: Whenever Ben Zoma saw a crowd of people, he'd say, Blessed be God who has created all these people to serve me. For look how hard Adam had to work before he could obtain some bread to eat. First he had to plow, and then he had to sow, and then he had to reap. And then he had to thresh, and then he had to sort the grain. He had to grind it and then to sift the flour. Then he had to knead it, and the he had to bake it. And only then could he eat the bread. Whereas I wake up to the morning, and find that all these things have been done for me. And so we add, 'Thank you God."
We live in rather challenging times and it's easy, if not impossible not, to join in the chorus all around us that is focused on the ills and fears, real or imagined, that come to us compliments of politicians and pundits, social media and our internal anxieties, as well as the problems and fears that impact upon each of us and our loved ones. So what will be thankful for this Thanksgiving season and in the weeks and seasons to come? Will we have the courage to focus on the good and our own blessings, or will we be frozen by fear and the unknown?
Dr. Alexander Whyte, a great Scottish preacher, always found something to thank God for, even in the worst of times. One stormy, dismal Sunday morning, a member of his congregation, seeing him enter his church, thought to himself, "The doctor will have nothing to thank God for on such a wretched morning." Dr. Whyte began, "We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this." History tells us that in every age there are challenges and dark moments. Sometimes it's confusing and it implants doubt and pessimism in our psyches.
A woman once said, "I've been reading all about the ills of smoking and drinking, so I've just about decided to give up reading."
"Only the sensitive, the civilized give thanks. The brutish, the barbarous, take for granted. They take. They take from God. They take from nature. They take from man. They give nothing. There are people slightly less sensitive who give token thanks, verbal begrudging. There are people half-sensitive who give formal thanks, lest others doubt their breeding. And there are people, the sensitive, the civilized, who give whole thanks: with tongue, with mind, with heart, and with hand." (Rabbi Ely Pilchik, z"l)
Thank you: two of the simplest words in the English language. They are among the first, with urging, that we learn as toddlers in early socialization. Our parents constantly suggested we say them. When someone gave us a compliment, a treat or a gift, our parents urged us on with, "What do you say?"
And initially, we reluctantly said, "Thank you."
When Mark Twain was at the height of his career, he was being paid five dollars a word for his essays. An admirer wrote a letter explaining his career plans and requested that Twain share with him his choicest word, and of course included five dollars with the note. Twain responded, "Thanks."
Our tradition teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 54b) that we are obligated to say the words, "Thank you," and they did not mean to save it for Thanksgiving—Biblically, Sukkot. In our American tradition, none of us are comfortable skipping Thanksgiving. It's our secular, religious, unique national holiday, with its own traditions that speak to us from childhood memories to the spirit of counting our blessings.
Ever since Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony initiated the festival in 1621, it has been part of the American experience, belonging to this nation and to all "the inhabitants thereof." It is envied by cultures around the globe, many who do not have as much to be thankful for as do we. While President Washington declared a national holiday on Thursday, November 26, 1789, the holiday was observed intermittently. Finally, President Lincoln made it an annual event on the last Thursday of November, and then FDR put it on the fourth Thursday, as an American holiday for people of all faiths or of no faith, and the property of none of them.
As a child, my Grandpa Max and then my rabbi taught me a simple Hebrew prayer to be recited upon waking each new day. I yet say it daily all these many years later. "Modeh ahi l'fanecha... God I am thankful that You have restored my soul" and life and allowed me to be alive this morning. Too often we take the gift of life for granted. Count your blessings!
On Sukkot, we say thanks with our fellow Jews; on Thanksgiving we say thanks with our fellow Americans. For both, let us share our gratitude and our blessings with all those in need - our loved ones, community, nation and far beyond. For we have been taught to count our blessings and to share them.
An old Jewish proverb teaches us, “K'she-yehudi shover rebel, hu modeh l'Adonai... When a Jew breaks a leg, he should thank God that he did not break both; and when he breaks both legs, he should thank God that he didn't break his neck." Even in a difficult situation, one should attempt to find something for which to be thankful. “The very name - Yehudi, Jew - comes from the word todah, thanks. Jewish tradition has a whole network of blessings ... for the sunset and the rainbow, for the ocean and for bread, for wine and for new clothing, for hearing good news and hearing bad news, for tasting fruits and drinking water, for hearing thunder and seeing lightning, and for special moments in our lives."
Count your blessings, I implore you as your rabbi, your teacher and I pray, as your friend. It's good for your health! You'll feel better! And thank you, one and all, for all the kindnesses you have shown me. In the spirit of Thanksgiving and this great nation in which we are privileged to live, to our loved ones and to one another, let us count our blessings time and again, and say, "Thank you very, very much."