Thanksgiving: Finding the Spiritual in the Secular

On Thanksgiving, regardless of our religious background, we are supposed to pause and give thanks for the luxuries of food, family and shelter. In Judaism, every day is meant to be Thanksgiving.

Just the mere mention of the holiday Thanksgiving is enough for most Americans to experience a Pavlovian response. Our mouths begin to water at the thought of the succulent turkey, the herbaceous stuffing and the comforting thought of an afternoon spent with family, friends and the National Football League. Truly, there aren’t too many days on the calendar that feel more ‘American’ than Thanksgiving.

For many Jews, particularly religious Jews, Thanksgiving is a chance to celebrate for another reason. It is a purely secular holiday, which allows us to relax and to enjoy a day off from work in an environment that is decidedly not Shabbat or Yom Tov. Although our responsibilities for daily prayer are still binding, the truth is that it is kind of nice to have a holiday that does not involve an extended service at the synagogue. In fact, since my father-in-law is also a congregational rabbi, it is the one ‘holiday’ of the year that we can actually spend together!

Thanksgiving - Courtesy - 18112011

And then of course there are the overtones of Thanksgiving which walk in step with our Jewish traditions and ethos. On Thanksgiving, regardless of our religious background (or lack there of), we are supposed to pause and give thanks for the luxuries of food, family and shelter. Many of us volunteer in our community, donate food to the local food pantry, or make donations to charities which help to feed the hungry in our midst. These are decidedly Jewish values; values which are shared by this American holiday.

There is one difference worth pointing out however. In Judaism, every day is meant to be Thanksgiving. Before any bite of food, any sip of water, any taste of turkey, and on any day of the year, there is a bracha, a blessing to be recited. After every meal, despite a belly full of tryptophan, we are asked to articulate thanksgiving to God for the gifts which exist in our lives. “Praised are you God, who feeds all of humankind.”

And with our Jewish regimen of thanksgiving comes another theological realization; one that is at once daunting and comforting. It is best said by the words of our Shabbat liturgy: “If our mouths were filled with song as the waters fill the sea…could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky… it would still not be enough to offer praise to You, God, for one ten-thousandth of goodness you have granted to our ancestors and to us.” Herein we see a theology of thanksgiving. As Jews we are expected to articulate our thanks at every possible moment since we recognize that all of these blessings; food, clothing, love, companionship, health and happiness come from God who is Hatov v’Hameitiv, The Source of Good, and the One who bestows goodness upon humankind.

So no matter where we are in the Jewish world; whether at a Thanksgiving table in America, or simply sitting at a dinner table on a Thursday night in Tel Aviv, in London, in Budapest, or in Bali, let it be a time of hodayah, of thanksgiving. But let it also be a time of reflection as to how much work there is left to do in order to perfect our societies. And know, that no matter how thankful we are, no matter how many times we pause to take note of the countless blessings that are offered to us with each breath and with every passing moment – it can never fully state our thanks to God, the Architect of our lives, and the compassionate Creator of our world and our ever-expanding universe.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island.