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Gratitude and Blessings on Thanksgiving

Gratitude and Blessings on Thanksgiving

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, David DeSteno wrote an opinion editorial entitled, “Why Gratitude is Wasted on Thanksgiving.”  DeSteno, a psychologist who has spent years studying how gratitude shapes people’s lives, writes the following, “truth be told, gratitude is wasted on Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong: I love the rhythms and rituals of the day as much as anyone. It’s just that the very things that make Thanksgiving so wonderful — the presence of family and friends, the time off from work, indulging in that extra serving of turkey — also make gratitude unnecessary.”

DeSteno’s basic premise is that gratitude drives us to form strong bonds with one another.  It encourages us to be honest and to have self-control.  Gratitude motivates us to be more productive and to reduce materialism.  DeSteno argues that on Thanksgiving the things that drive gratitude aren’t necessarily present, because most often, we get together with already loved ones – not with people we hardly know.  We help ourselves to plenty of pie – self-control is not really a tenet of Thanksgiving, and neither is reducing materialism since Black Friday now starts around 5 p.m. this afternoon.

Maybe…but I take a different approach to Thanksgiving.  I believe that Thanksgiving provides us with dedicated time to count our blessings.  We have a whole day to take a break from the rest of our stressful lives.  With time to slow down, we have more bandwidth to offer words of appreciation for the friends and family members around the table, for the food that we eat, for the opportunity to deepen and strengthen our bonds with one another – whether that happens watching or playing football, taking a walk around the block, indulging in pie, heading to the sales, or whatever your Thanksgiving tradition might be. 

Gratitude, real gratitude, however, goes deeper than saying thank you and ‘feeling’ appreciative.  Sincere gratitude enables us to uncover the blessings in our lives.  And when we hold up those blessings and count them, we also notice how many people in our world and in our community do not have them.  Not everyone can afford Thanksgiving dinner.  Not everyone will be going to a warm, dry house to share in a festive meal.  Not everyone has a heavy coat to wear on chilly days.

Gratitude means sharing our blessings with one another.  In this way, gratitude requires action.  In a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to act.  This year, the Thanksgiving Offering will be donated to West Valley Community Services, whose mission is to unite the community to fight hunger and homelessness, and to the Saratoga Rotating Safe Car Park, which provides people living in their cars a safe place to park overnight, so that they can sleep without fear of violence and harassment.  If you are able, please contribute.  As author, Firoozah Dumas writes, “When you have what you need, use the rest to bring joy to someone’s life.”

Back to DeSteno’s point – although I disagree with his premise that gratitude is wasted on Thanksgiving, I do think he raises and important question, which is:  how will we show our thanks not only today, when we have time set aside, but tomorrow?  And the next day?  How will we express gratitude on the other 364 days of the year that are not Thanksgiving?  When the day-to-day pulls at us – when we’re running late, and we’ve spilled our coffee as we brace ourselves to sit in an hour of traffic to travel a distance that at another time of day would take 15 minutes.  How do we access our gratitude in those moments?

The Jewish tradition has a practice of striving to recite 100 blessings every day.  The practice goes back to the Talmud – about 2000 years, when the early rabbis began reciting blessings over seemingly mundane things.  There are blessings for waking up in the morning, a blessing for putting on clothes, a blessing for seeing lighting, for hearing thunder, for seeing a friend for the first time in a month, yes, even going to the bathroom.  There is a blessing for every type of food that we eat and blessings for when we have finished eating.

Ancient rabbinic wisdom understood that without taking a moment to recite a blessing, days might pass by without our taking time to wonder at the world.  To behold all that is majestic and magical around us and to express our appreciation.

Blessings help us focus on what we are grateful for.  They keep us focused on what we have, rather on what we wish we had, or what we think we wish we had.  Blessings add holiness to otherwise ordinary moments.  It is miraculous that we wake up each morning, but how many of us take time to notice?  Do we take even a split second to say, thank you God for allowing me to wake up, revived from a night’s sleep?  Or do we mutter something to the alarm as we hit snooze?

Blessings ground us in what the 20th century theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.”  Heschel writes, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.  Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Thanksgiving might be the day our country has set aside to offer thanks, but we have the ability to offer our gratitude every single day.  And if we live in radical amazement – if we see everything around us as incredible and phenomenal, then we will have no choice but to offer blessings and words of thanks.

I mentioned a moment ago that the Jewish tradition asks us to say 100 blessings a day – this practice keeps us open to radical amazement.  One of my favorite blessings is the one for when we do something new or when we celebrate something we haven’t celebrated in a year.  This is the same one that can be said when we see a friend for the first time in awhile.  The Shehecheyanu thanks God for granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day.  I am so grateful for this time together, so grateful to have Thanksgiving as an opportunity to come together in radical amazement, grateful for the gift of life and for the gift of community. 

How beautiful, how phenomenal to celebrate this day.  When we come together with our differences and our similarities, we encounter each other’s humanity, as well as the spark of the Divine implanted within us.  We create holy space and holy time on this day, by offering sincere words of thanks.  Particularly at this time in our history, when our country feels so divided, at a time when hate crimes are on the rise, it is a blessing – it is holy, to bring our houses of worship together and to feel the power that comes from being in each other’s presence.

Personally, I will admit that before attending this service for the first time last year, Thanksgiving had been a nice day to hang out with family, but I had never considered it to be a holy day.  This service has changed my experience, and I thank you for that.

I would like to invite you to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing with me:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-he-cheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higi-anu la-z’man ha-zeh.

Praised are You Lord our God, who rules the universe, granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day.                       Amen.