The scene is a familiar one. The table is laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The family sits around and one by one each member is expected to mention something they are thankful for. Smiles abound, and sometimes tears flow, as relatives express their gratitude for gifts large and small. A beautiful tradition.
But is that really what thanksgiving is all about?
On one hand, yes. Expressing gratitude, though a simple deed, is also an extraordinary one. Thanking others humbles us, reminding us that often we are who we are and have what we have due to others around us. Thanking another empowers the receiver who recognizes that their actions have made a difference in someone’s life.
In Judaism, we don’t have one thanksgiving, but many. Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach and Shavuot all serve that function, days in which we must stop and reflect on what God has done for us and given us. Daily in the liturgy, both in the Amidah prayer and Grace after Meals we have blessings of thanksgiving where we speak of the “miracles which are with us daily”, recognizing that we should not take for granted even mundane everyday things.
But is simply saying thank you enough? Is that really the best way to express gratitude? One of the mitzvot on the three pilgrimage holidays is to “rejoice in the day”. In trying to understand what this entails the Rambam notes that the Torah speaks of the obligation in terms of both an individual’s own family and the Levite, widow, orphan and sojourner. He concludes that the mitzvah is not only about being happy, but about making others happy. As we enjoy the gifts we have been given, we must also give of our gifts to others. Apparently, on the various Jewish thanksgivings, there is an obligation not only to thank, but also to give.
There is a beautiful story roaming the internet about a teacher who assigned her first grade class to draw pictures of something for which they were thankful:
Most of the class drew pictures of turkey and other traditional foods of the holiday, but one boy, Douglas, made a different kind of picture. Douglas was a different kind of boy. He was the teacher’s true child of misery, frail and unhappy. As other children played at recess, Douglas was likely to stand close by her side. One could only guess at the pain Douglas felt behind those sad eyes.
Yes, his picture was different. When asked to draw a picture of something for which he was thankful, he drew a hand. Nothing else. Just an empty hand.
His abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? The children made various guesses but soon went on to other tasks. At the end of the day, the teacher paused at Douglas’ desk, bent down, and asked him whose hand it was.
The little boy looked away and murmured, “It’s yours, teacher.”
This thanksgiving, don’t just say thank you but be the hand that someone else is thankful for.
Pardes360 is a series of responses to world current events by Pardes faculty in 360 words (or sometimes a few more). The views expressed in the articles are those of the author and do not reflect and institutional stance. To read other Pardes360 articles, click here.