Broadening Our Thanksgiving Horizon

A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

Group of young friends having traditional dinner on Thanksgiving Day

The Jewish Fall Festivals took us on a journey, turning us “inside out.” Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement focused our attention inwardly, examining our deeds and our quest to be better individual human beings. Then, Sukkot took us outside in booths and nature, making us aware of the needs of others for shelter and harvest, and of our need to give thanks as a community. Indeed, Sukkot seems to be the biblical inspiration for the original Pilgrim Thanksgiving celebration.

There are dozens of websites providing suggested lists of what we should be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Most of them start with very personal, inward reflections on things that make you happy: Netflix, coffee/wine, delivery food, the snooze button, spellcheck – but NOT autocorrect, and finding that last slice of pie.

The more mature lists continue with items that go beyond ego and stoke a grander spirit of gratitude: parents, children, younger siblings you still get to protect and older ones who will always protect you, your support system (be it at work, at home, or across the country), the people who have been stand-in parents as needed, and/or a table full of people who can tell stories from a shared childhood.

Some rituals from Sukkot can add texture to our journey of gratitude, taking thanksgiving outside of one’s individual mindset and broadening our horizon of appreciation. The Sukkot ritual of ushpizin encourages us to invite honored guests to our holiday table. The traditional guest list are the classical matriarchs and patriarchs, those founding biblical families that had great impact on future generations. A modern version would include other ancestors, living or dead, who have created a legacy we enjoy today, and could include public figures whose personalities and achievements left a lasting mark on our lives.

A concrete example of “paying our gratitude forward” could be to use our Thanksgiving setting to thank our community’s and nation’s first responders. The usual list includes the police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and members of the armed forces, who place themselves in danger on a regular basis. We thank God for those who bravely risk their lives for others and thank them for the training and preparation they undergo. We can pray for them to be wise in the discharge of their duties, and for their emotional protection, and give thanks for the family and loved ones who support these first responders and veterans.

While we are at it, we can expand the list of first responders for whom we should show gratitude: teachers, counselors, therapists, medical researchers, clergy and chaplains, and the volunteers who step up to lead organizations that do good in our community. Sure, we should be thanking them 365 days a year…. but Thanksgiving can serve as a keynote for remembering all who serve and dedicate their lives to make our lives and our community better.

The following are sections of a prayer that Rabbi John Linder offered to his Scottsdale, Arizona community:

Compassionate God, Eternal Spirit of the Universe, we praise You for bringing us together — brothers and sisters of all faiths and understandings. We are united in our common obligation to serve — to care for the Earth, entrusted to us; to stand up for the orphan, the widow and the strangers, all created in Your image.

This morning, we pray for those who sacrifice daily — men and women who serve to protect, in our local communities and around the globe – those who serve in our armed forces, our veterans, police, fire and first responders… Watch over all those who defend our nation, shield them from harm and guide them in all their pursuits. Grant their commanders wisdom and discernment in their time of preparation and on the battlefield.

Grant healing to those who are wounded. Be with the families of those who serve. Let us be mindful of their great sacrifice as well. As their loved ones fight for us, let us extend our hands and our hearts to them.

Be with our veterans when they return. Remind us, dear God, as they fought for us, it is our obligation to fight for them — to provide the services necessary to heal their wounded bodies and broken spirits; to help them find jobs that can sustain them and their families. May we never turn our backs on those that serve.

May those who stand up for dignity and rights of all of God’s creatures hear the prophet Joshua speak to us, “Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

May we, blessed to live in this great country, continue to lead by example, and always, in the words of Isaiah, be a light to the nations. May we, citizens of this great state and nation hold dear the vision of the prophet Isaiah, “”Let nation not lift up sword against nation nor learn war anymore.” As we say together, Amen.

There is one more unique way to broaden our understanding of gratitude, community, loyalty, and hope this Thanksgiving. The day before the solar date for November 28, 2019, is the holiday that Beta Yisrael, the Ethiopian Jewish community, celebrate as Sigd. 50 days after Yom Kippur, this day of Torah learning, prayer, repentance, and prostration (sigd means prostration, bowing in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian liturgical language), the holiday commemorates and is modeled after the events described in the Book of Nehemiah.

Following their return to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century B.C.E, the Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) and requested that Ezra the Scribe read to them from the Torah. Some three weeks later, the Judean community held a special gathering in Jerusalem, during which it recommitted itself to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

In Ethiopia, the Sigd was celebrated atop designated mountains. A qes (Ethiopian religious leader) in Israel explains, “When we climbed the mountain, we felt Jerusalem in our heart of hearts. This deeply impacted our Judaism. Jews came from afar, two or three days on foot, on horses, and on mules, in order to have the chance to hear Torah from the qes. The people learned and were strengthened.”

The holiday has now been recognized as an Israeli festival to be celebrated by all, in order to preserve the ancient tradition and show how generations who longed to live freely as Jews in the Holy Land have had their prayers answered. Yosef Hadane, the Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community, considers it vital that the holiday continue to be celebrated now that Ethiopian Jewry has at long last arrived in Israel. “Our forefathers in Ethiopia always prayed to return to Jerusalem and always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem,” he has said. “We are here, but . . . the vast majority of the Jewish nation is still in the diaspora, and this day and these prayers are very important for ingathering the exiles . . . Therefore, I would suggest that Jews in Israel and the rest of the world adopt this holiday.”

This Thanksgiving, we can create an inclusive table. We can share gratitude for all those who serve, protect, nurture, and educate. We can pledge appreciation for all who can be seen as pilgrims or welcoming societies. And we can discover how parts of our global Jewish community have expressed their gratitude for receiving the gifts of answered prayers.