Gratitude is the foundation of a religious life. To be a religious person means to be a grateful person. The quote in my signature block comes from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who invites us to consider, “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” We can go through life two ways- one is by saying, “Please,” and the other is by saying, “Thank You.” If we learn to say thank you more and please less, we will have a much happier life. Gratitude is the foundation of happiness, important enough that we dedicate a national holiday this month to reminding ourselves, as a society, to pause in our routines and say thank you. Giving thanks is not a luxury, it is a necessity for our spiritual well-being.
It was President Abraham Lincoln on 3 Oct., 1863 established this observance with the following words:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In ancient Israel the priests offered a number of sacrificial offerings. The rabbis said that in the messianic era, all of those sacrifices would be eliminated. All, that is, except one – the thanksgiving offering. Giving thanks, they understood will be important for humanity throughout time. Psalm 92 begins with the words, “It is good to give thanks to God.” Yes, it is, indeed, good to give thanks.
Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we could massively shift the balance of our conversation from whining, however innocuous, to reminding ourselves of the pervasive blessings we enjoy with no acknowledgement and which we totally take for granted. Imagine if we stopped to notice all the gifts showered on us, morning, noon, and night. It sometimes happens that November has 5 Thursdays, which can be confusing. In the early ‘70’s, the government accidentally printed a calendar with the wrong date for the holiday. Rather than going to the expense of re-printing the entire run, they simply included a note that said, “Note that we are giving thanks on the wrong day.” As if such a thing were possible. As if there is ever a wrong day on which to give thanks. What an absurd notion! Every day should be thanksgiving!
I read a fascinating article on needs and greeds, in which Prof. George Schlessinger reported on a psychology class in which the teacher asked each of 250 participants to write down what the regarded to be the minimum they would need in addition to what they already had so that for the next two months they would be contented, wanting nothing and asking for nothing. The
experiment yielded a great variety of answers, all of which had one significant feature in common: every student had SOMETHING that they needed. There was not one person who was ready to concede that they were satisfied and needed nothing more.
It is so easy to take the blessings of our lives for granted. Listen to this exercise which might open your eyes to the need to deepen you sense of appreciation:
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes of his friend Rabbi Leibel Benjaminson’s mussar (character development) group. They were encouraged to write for 10 minutes about something that they usually do or have and to consider its ramifications. He wrote about his morning cup of coffee. He considered how the coffee was grown and harvested in Brazil, how the trees were planted and tended. Then the beans were harvested, roasted, and packed for shipping. Hundreds of people were involved in shipping that coffee until it arrived at his corner grocery store. Then there was the gas range he used to boil water and the match he used to light the range. There was the range itself, the tea kettle, the table and chair at which he sat, the mug, the milk. He became aware of the thousands of people whose work was necessary for him to enjoy that cup of coffee, and his heart was filled with gratitude.
- Instead of complaining about the sink of dirty dishes, we should be thankful that we have plenty of food to eat.
- Instead of complaining about the piles of laundry that need to be washed, folded and put away, we should be thankful that we have clothing to wear.
- Instead of complaining about making beds, we should be thankful that we are warm and comfortable at night.
- Instead of complaining about the kids’ bathroom – with its mess, towels all over the place and toothpaste on the mirror – we should be thankful for the conveniences of bathrooms.
- Instead of complaining about finger smudges all over the refrigerator, we should be thankful that we can afford to fill it with food.
- Instead of complaining about the ever-slamming screen door we should be thankful that we have children who are healthy and able to run and play.
We have so many things to be grateful for. We give thanks for the abundance of food we enjoy, and for those who grow it. We give thanks for the health of our bodies, which enable us to be here this morning to participate in this service, for our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being. We gives thanks for the undeserved gift of being born in these United States of America, for the many freedoms we enjoy and especially for those who stand guard to protect those freedoms. We give thanks to our employers who provide us with sustenance and meaning in our lives. We give thanks to God for the blessing of our religious communities which sustain us through times both good and bad, and for our religious teachings that inspire us to live righteous and worthy lives.
And we give thanks for our families and those with whom we share this sacred occasion. The commentator Ellen Goodman reminds us as follows: “. . . as I survey the future foodscape, it isn’t the feast that impresses me. A middle-class child of 20th century America, I am no longer amazed by a 25-pound turkey. What seems more rare is the family that will come to share it. After all, this is what we have learned about our country, isn’t it? That in America, food is plentiful but family is scarce. That in America, Thanksgiving was once a day to be grateful for the good luck of the land. That now we celebrate something that seems every bit as subject to weather patterns and disasters: our endangered families. That the holiday is less about food and more about that scarcer source of human sustenance.”
May we be blessed each day to find something for which we can be thankful, and in this way every day can be for us a day of Thanksgiving.