Celebrations are beautiful and meaningful, yet they are often overshadowed by our predisposition to focus disproportionately on gastronomical delights. As this week is Thanksgiving, I want to use this week’s Torah portion as a springboard to delve into what this holiday is all about. The first interesting tidbit is that there is a strong correlation between the word “Jew” and the concept of Thanksgiving. Leah, Jacob’s first wife, had three children: Rueven, Shimon and Levi (which would have been 25% of the 12 tribes). She then bore her fourth child and named him “Judah,” whose name indicates that she was grateful to Hashem for giving her more than her share. Hence the word “Jew” is derived from the name Judah, whose literal translation is “thanks”.
Our sages write that Leah was the first person in the Torah to give thanks. As interesting as that may sound, it just doesn’t seem to be logical. Can it really be true that for the first two thousand years of creation no one had the decency to say thank you? One of the commentaries explains that others obviously gave thanks, but what was unique about Leah was her mindset for saying thank you. She was the depressed and angry older sister; she felt that God had all but forsaken her. Her sister had beauty and charm and was Jacob’s beloved, and she began to question her purpose in life. Her epiphany came as a result of bearing her fourth child when she realized that in spite of everything she was to be the dominant mother of the tribes of Israel. Her “thanks” is acknowledgement of what she believed to be a negative morphed into a positive.
My son in law Benjie, who was born and raised in Austria and speaks German as his mother tongue, explained that the word “thanks” is derived from the German word “danke”. Furthermore, he said that in classic German the two concepts of thinking and thanking were initially a single thought. The family-root of thinking/thanking comes from “thought” (Gedanke) and “memory” (Gedaechtnis). Even in Yiddish when someone has a good thought to share, it is expressed by using the phrase “ich hub a gedank”. The intertwining of the two words goes very well with an idea in the German language – namely: “Dank” is the memory of the heart.
Thus, perhaps the idea of expressing gratitude and thanks on the holidays should start by taking a page out of the Torah. To be thankful has less to do with statements of gratitude and more to do with comprehension of how things worked out in a way we never could have imagined. As a rabbi, I am sometimes overwhelmed at the way people use their difficulties to catapult them onto greater heights. Abraham would never have been the Father of our people if he hadn’t been forced out of his birthplace and comfort zone. Moses would never have been the leader of our people if he wasn’t forced out of the house of Pharoh and exiled. The nation of Israel would never have come into existence had it not been for the tragedy of the Holocaust. Some of the best marriages are realized after a failed one and the best jobs only after a disastrous one.
It is always important to be grateful and say thank you. However, one day a year we are asked to take it to a higher level and to acknowledge that all our personal trials and tribulations make us who we are today. It is the time to declare that we would never trade our past selves for today’s selves, regardless of how we got here.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel
PS: For those of my coreligionist, who hide behind the banner of piety and dismiss the importance of Thanksgiving, let me assure them that to be thankful is not an option. It is the moral obligation of all citizens who share in the liberty and freedoms found in our constitution. It is not a secular holiday but the most noble of sacred Jewish holidays; the time when we publicly declare our gratitude and thanks to the almighty. Even those who espouse a ghetto mentality in order to maintain Judaism’s relevance and sanctity still owe their existence to their host country. Failure to respect and show gratitude will ultimately promote only hatred and animosity and the cessation of the freedoms they crave.