Post-Thanksgiving 2019, Shabbat Toldot
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Thank you all for being here on this Shabbat. I'd like to thank Autumn Wolf for singing tonight, and our new accompanist, David Mancini, for doing such a beautiful job on his first service here. I’d like to thank Niles King for playing drums wonderfully. I’d like to thank Lee Kane for her fine drash. I’d like to thank Agnes Don for setting up our Oneg Shabbat, and Gabe Cohon for helping set up the Oneg. I’d like to thank Herb Cohn for passing out programs tonight. I’d like to thank Dr. Sloan King for being the president of our congregation. I'd like to thank each and every one of you who are present here. I’m grateful to be on the bimah tonight, and I am most grateful to be the rabbi of this congregation. I can't tell you what it means to me to be here. You are too kind to listen to me offer this sermon. By golly, thanks! No really, thanks a lot. Is there anyone I've forgotten to thank? Wouldn't want to do that. Oh, and I'd like to thank my parents, for without them I wouldn't be here at all. And I'd like to thank the Academy for this great honor...
My friends, in our society we are supposed to say thank you all the time, and by now you've probably figured out that any kind of thanking eventually becomes pretty routine. Get a gift? Write a thank-you note or send a quick thank you email or Facebook message or a thank-you text. A waitress brings your meal, or fills your water glass, or gets a napkin, you say thank you. A guy moves his chair for you, or says "Gesundheit" when you sneeze, or tells you where the bathroom is, you say "thanks". It is frequent and ordinary and banal. Gratitude is just good form. It means about as much as answering "fine" when someone asks, "How are you?"
For most of us, saying "thanks" is a reflex, an automatic, autonomic social response, a smile that never reaches our eyes.
And yesterday there was that word, Thanksgiving. The term “Thanksgiving” sounds like a legal day off, an excuse to eat turkey and watch football, an ordinary part of life. We no longer hear the word "thanksgiving" with any real sense that it means more than a four-day weekend with family in the house—and not always the family we particularly want to have around... It's not "thanks" combined with "giving", it's just one untranslated word, Thanksgiving, a holiday right there between Halloween and Chanukah or whatever that other late December holiday is... Kwanzaa. Thanksgiving is a pleasant, overfed American routine. Eat turkey and stuffing, watch football, wash dishes, go shopping or see a movie.
But there's something troubling about that routine, for giving thanks is far from an ordinary or natural process. One of the important things that separates human beings from other animal species is our ability to say thanks, even for the basic necessities of life. Animals may feel grateful for their next meal, but they are too busy devouring it to pause and pay homage to whatever brought it to mouth. But humans have both the capacity to eat and to express thanks for the fact. I’ve been told that many Native American peoples have a remarkable practice when they go hunting: they offer thanks to the spirit of the animals they will eat, gratitude for the sustenance these fellow creatures will provide to them. A peculiar and beautiful idea.
Our purpose in saying grace before meals in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths is a little different, but similarly motivated. It is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 5, v’achalta v’savata uveirachta "you shall eat and be satisfied and bless your God." In other words, for the good, basic sustenance you are getting, offer thanks to the One who created it, and Who created you. The rabbis of the Talmud believed this taught a great deal more: the most basic biological act, eating food, something we do three times a day—some of us more often than that—needed to be raised to the level of sanctification and holiness. According to Jewish tradition the tables on which we eat are spiritually transformed into altars for worshipping God by saying blessings of thanks before and after every meal. We are to make every meal a time of deep gratitude to the One who supplies our needs.
Back when these prayers were written, when this idea of a dining table as a holy place of gratitude developed, there was real doubt about whether there would be enough on that table for our ancestors to eat and actually feel satisfied. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from you really do feel grateful for what you have. Nowadays, our ability to find sufficient caloric intake is rarely in doubt. Certainly not during this week of gustatory excess, when sideboards groan with turkey and pie and everything good to eat before, after, and in between. Having enough to eat was not the issue; most of us are struggling with the opposite problem.
Nor is this food gratitude problem restricted to Thanksgiving. How many of us really sit down at the table with a sense of the holiness of the meals we eat? How many of us feel a glowing, transcendent sense of wonder before plowing into our food? Now dessert may be a different matter... for most of us the ritualized expression of gratitude before we eat, if we even do the motzi, is just a quick bow to convention. And that's assuming we say any kind of blessing before we eat. A little survey—although no hands are necessary. How many of you say Hamotzi or some other blessing of gratitude before every meal?
Beyond the food issue there is another problem. The idea that giving thanks is easy is simply inaccurate. Saying thank you in a meaningful way—either to God or to another person—can be difficult and confusing.
There is a classic joke about gratitude that captures the spirit of thanksgiving as usually expressed. A Jewish mother gives her son two neckties for his birthday, one red and one blue. To please her, that night he wears his new red tie to dinner. She looks at him carefully, cocks her head to one side, and asks "Nu, so what's wrong with the blue tie?" Are any of you like that? Do any of you have mothers like that? People who can't quite accept a simple thank you?
Many times we try to thank someone in a way that will matter, only to find our thanksgiving offering has missed its target. Other times we feel profoundly grateful, but allow ourselves to be so busy that we just don't get around to showing it. For some of us it's difficult even to say "thank you" for what people do for us; it means accepting we are worthy of someone else's kindness and generosity, and deserve to be taken care of or loved. A casual thank you is easy, but meaningless. Effective thanksgiving, and thanks receiving, requires thought and care.
And let's talk a bit about what it means to give our thanks directly to God.
Do you ever thank God? If so, when do you most feel like offering Psalms of praise or gratitude to God? I feel it when I experience the spectacular beauty of nature: during a great sunset in the mountains, or sunrise along the sand of a misty beach. It is a time when my heart seems to open up, when I am exalted by a deep and profound sense of connection to the Source of all life and beauty. It’s like King David's words from Psalm 103, "Bless the Lord, my soul, all my being blesses and thanks God's holy name!" Or the words in our morning service, a poem from the Talmud that reminds us what spectacular spiritual heights gratitude can reach:
If our mouths were filled with song as water fills the sea,
And our tongues rang with Your praise tirelessly as the roaring waves;
If our lips offered adoration as boundless as the sky,
And our eyes shone in reverence as brightly as the sun;
If our hands were spread in prayer as wide as eagle's wings,
And our feet ran to serve You as swiftly as deer,
We would still be unable to thank You enough for the smallest part
of the numberless favors
You gave to our ancestors and to us.
What soaring imagery! What reverent humility, dedicated to expressing the passionate gratitude that is at the heart of religious living, of making our lives speak of God's grace. What a gorgeous statement of the depth of the thanksgiving that we owe to God!
Wonderful words for those incredible, transformative moments. But also, an impossible, even ridiculous standard. Because most of the time, we just don't feel that way, not when stuck in holiday traffic, or when we get our tax bill, or when our phones or computers crash, or when our spouse or children or parents or bosses or employees make yet another impossible demand on our time and patience, or when the latest news provokes irritation and anger. We are not our ancient ancestors, singing God's praise at the slightest provocation. We live in a post-modern world. Very little around us provokes a sense of wonder or miracle. We deal with the reality of deadlines and bottom lines, with the pedestrian detail of keeping homes and businesses and cars and relationships in working order. We don't have time or inclination to sing songs of thanks for everyday blessings. If one of those perfect moments of boundless gratitude pops up--dandy, we'll give thanks. But let's not pretend that everyday life in Tucson, Arizona is a seamless series of spiritual perfections.
So let's break the mold, and look at gratitude through a different eye. The poet Michael Leunig, who wrote a prayer column for the Sunday paper in Melbourne, Australia, has an odd way of giving thanks for the most mundane, ordinary things, in a refreshing, relevant way. It can help us see the world as it truly is: not its surface ordinariness, but its wonderful, paradoxical innate mystery and holiness. As a singer, I share this prayer/poem of his with you:
We give thanks for singers, all types of singers.
Popular, concert singers, and tuneless singers in the shower
Whistlers, hummers, and those who sing while they work.
Singers of lullabies, singers of nonsense and small scraps of melody.
Singers on branches and rooftops. Morning yodellers and evening warblers. Singers in seedy nightclubs, singers in the street;
Singers in cathedrals, school hallways, grandstands, backyards,
paddocks, bedrooms, corridors, stairwells,
and places of echo and resonance.
We give praise to all those who give some small voice
To the everyday joy of the soul. Amen.
Or this one:
We give thanks for the invention of the handle. Without it there would be many things we couldn’t hold on to. As for the things we can’t hold on to anyway, let us gracefully accept their ungraspable nature and celebrate all things elusive, fleeting, and intangible. They mystify us and make us receptive to truth and beauty. We celebrate and give thanks. Amen.
You see, there is something ordinary about the process of giving thanks. But most of us have it simply backwards. It is not the process of thanksgiving that is ordinary; it is the things we need to feel grateful for that appear, on the surface, to be ordinary. Our thanksgiving is an incredible way of linking us through simple, practical ways to a Divine network of life-creating gratitude. God's gifts are right here, and we need to learn to see them.
So what is the secret of being able to remain grateful, of staying in tune with our thanksgiving? Only this: becoming aware of all that we have in our lives, and starting to really give thanks for it all. Regularly.
There's a final, human part to this gratitude problem, too. It is the natural, overwhelmingly tendency to take a good thing for granted. Often we just don't manage to thank the people who mean the most to us. Usually, the ones we care about the most are especially likely to be slighted.
How do you learn to thank the people you care about most? It’s easier to do so on holidays and birthdays, at anniversaries and times of accomplishment, like graduations and promotions. But it’s even more important to do so each and every day. To thank those you love for being themselves, for being with you, for making your life better. In a daily way.
There is a beautiful passage in the liturgy, the Modim, the prayer of thanksgiving. It is offered three times a day in the traditional Amidah, and it reads, in part, “Thank you God for the ordinary miracles you perform for us evening, morning and afternoon.” The ordinary miracles. The beautiful and simple things that keep us going and preserve us and allow us to be here to give thanks. To God. To those we love. To our friends. To our congregation, even.
On this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we thank God, then, not for great gifts, or waterfalls, or financial windfalls, or promotions, or even new births. We express gratitude for the simple blessings that keep us alive and sustain us, and allow us to experience this miraculous world in all its precious, sacred beauty—in particular, for friends and for family. All these ordinary miracles do is keep us going—and my friends, that is miracle enough.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a great Jewish sage and mystic, once said "God fills the world with miracles, but man takes his little hand and covers his little eyes and sees nothing." Thanksgiving is about opening our eyes, to the small miracles, the ordinary miracles in the world all around us. Open your eyes now to the very real beauty and holiness in the ordinary people, ordinary town, and ordinary lives you lead. If you only make the effort to look, you will see sacredness everywhere.
And that is a reason to truly give thanks.