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The Jews and Thanksgiving

This week, Americans across the country will be sitting down for a traditional (or nontraditional) Thanksgiving feast. Somewhere between the turkey and the pumpkin pie, they’ll contemplate all the things that they are thankful for. In his article, “Jews and Thanksgiving,” Rabbi Benjamin Blech traces the origins of this special trait of gratitude to its Jewish roots:

I have a mission to make the whole world Jewish.

No, I don't mean that I'm trying to convert everybody to Judaism. I'm perfectly content to let everybody pray to the God of his or her own choice. If the divine plan is to ultimately have everyone join our people, I'll leave it to Messiah to handle that herculean task.

I'm talking about something else that defines Jews by our very name. It's a character trait that Jews are supposed to exemplify. And it's something that is needed today perhaps more than at any other time in history.

The reason we are known as 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, scattered to unknown destinations and no longer identifiable by their heritage. We, who remained, other than the priests and Levites, stem either from the large tribe of Judah or the much smaller one of Benjamin. Since the odds are very great that the survivors of historic diminution by assimilation or persecution are in the majority from Judah, we are called Jews.

But what is it about this particular tribe, descendants of but one of the 12 children of Israel that insured its survival above the others? It is very intriguing, both historically and theologically, to wonder what special characteristic the family of Judah possessed that allowed it to succeed while most of the remainder of the Israelites perished.

While there may be many answers, a number of Jewish commentators believe the secret of Judah's blessings are implicit in the Hebrew meaning of his name. When Leah, his mother, gave birth to him she said, "This time I will give thanksgiving unto the Lord; therefore she called his name Judah" (Genesis 29:35) - from the Hebrew hodah, giving thanks.

Biblically, names do far more than designate. They invest an object or person with a quality that defines their very essence and purpose for being. When Leah called her son Judah she hoped that the soul of this child as well as those who would descend from him would be the paradigm of the particular value that motivated her choice of name. And remarkably enough she succeeded beyond any logical expectation.

What is the best way to define a Jew? Not by our nose, as anti-Semites would have it, but by our name. Jews are the people who gave to the world, in addition to the awareness of God, the concept of gratitude.

Aldous Huxley noted a profound truth when he wrote that “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” Jewish life actively fights against this. Every single day the first words out of our mouths upon awakening are "I give thanks before you, eternal King, for having restored to me my soul." Every single day there are one hundred blessings to be recited, one hundred times to say thank you. One hundred times we emphasize not what we are missing but are grateful for what we have.

If someone lacks this trait of thankfulness the Talmud boldly says there is grave suspicion that this person may in fact not be a Jew!

Thankfully – and the pun is intended – others incorporated this idea into their traditions as well. The pilgrims who came to the American shores were steeped in the ideas of the Bible. In 1621, when the colonists in Plymouth Massachusetts survived a harsh winter and were blessed with a bountiful harvest, they recalled the Torah holiday of Sukkot and in imitation celebrated the first American Thanksgiving.

The requirement to acknowledge received blessings, without taking them for granted, should certainly be recognized as basic civilized behavior.

And yet the concept that stands in direct opposition to it seems to have become the guiding principle for so many in contemporary societies.

On a simple level, have you noticed how infrequently one hears the words "thank you" today? That's because whatever courtesy you may extend to others, no appreciation is deemed necessary because, after all, they're entitled.

Everyone is entitled to everything in a world where "entitlements" aren't just the names for government programs. They are the premise for the assumption that has been instilled in us by the advertising that tells us "you deserve the best"; by the self-esteem movements that condition us into believing we are so perfect already we don't have to struggle for anything; by a culture of hedonism that ignores the harsh reality that people have to earn their portion in life rather than having it come to them as a God given right, without work or effort.

There is an economic crisis around the world. Economists tell us it is reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 30s. Greece and Italy are on the verge of bankruptcy. Even the mighty United States has lost its AAA rating. Yet governments spend what they do not have and people continue their profligate ways - and why? Because they continue to believe they're entitled. Entitled to every blessing whether they've earned it or not. Entitled to divine favor without sufficient expression of gratitude. Entitled to bailouts from heaven, just like the bankers and speculators who believed it was only right that they be saved from the consequences of their horrible financial miscalculations.

More and more, it is becoming understood that capitalism requires a moral underpinning. Part of that must be the recognition that we do not take our gifts for granted. Eric Hoffer had it right when he said, “The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.”

Let's acknowledge our gratitude to God for everything he's given us instead of complaining about how much more we think we deserve.

And that's why I wish the world would be Jewish - or at least adopt the attribute that motivated Judah to get his name.