Such wondrous synchrony! What a wonderful confluence of holidays as we celebrate both our religious and secular, American selves on the same day. Chanukah and Thanksgiving together! Why didn’t anyone think of doing this before?
Just as our days are getting shorter and colder filled with gray skies and hours of darkness, the season of warmth and lights is upon us when we give thanks for the miracles which abound in Jewish life and which have kept the Jewish people alive. Chanukah is the story of the few against the many. It is the story of how we have prevailed miraculously against all odds to continually fulfill our Biblical mission of being a light unto the nations; it is an ongoing narrative of the importance of not remaining silent in the face of injustice and brutality. But, miracles are only miracles if they are perceived as miraculous. Perception requires conscious thought, awareness and appreciation. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there is no hearing, there is no awareness, and if there is no awareness, there is no relevance. The answer, then, to this age-old query is without hearing, it simply doesn’t make a difference.
Chanukah’s abiding relevance is not only to be found as a Jewish counterpart to Christmas but in its insistence that we feel grateful for the efforts of the tenacious few whose persistence in thought, faith and action made Jewish continuity possible. And, what a coincidence! Thanksgiving also requires an awareness of gratitude. And, though Thanksgiving is a secular, quintessentially American holiday its underlying purpose is not. After all, the Pilgrims were anything but secular. Part of the quest to settle in the New World was based upon their fervent desire for religious freedom.
It is no surprise then that many understand the expression of gratitude as a fundamentally religious rather than secular emotion. The Psalmists tell us it is good to thank God, but gratitude goes beyond simple appreciation; it is more than an obligation or a mindless cordiality. Rabbi Harold Kushner says that gratitude is “where religion begins in the human heart.” It is a way of looking at the world that doesn’t necessarily change anything in our lives; it just alters and informs our lives, enabling us to live with a sense that all of life is a gift, whatever its vicissitudes. Nor is gratitude just about receiving. It is an emotion that also embodies reciprocity. Someone does something for us—do we merely say thanks or do we give thanks? Giving invests us, it draws us in, it requires something more of us than just receiving. The grateful heart understands that just as we accept and receive, so do we give back.
Gratitude, like forgiveness, is a gift we give ourselves. It is good for us because it reminds us of what is good in our lives. When we are thankful, we create an opening within ourselves enabling us to reach out to others. By giving thanks, we give expression to what is holy and Godly within us. We witness what is not right in this world—all its cruelty and brutality—and we respond, not by turning away, not by becoming indifferent, but by treating others as we want to be treated. We help to rescue people from the devastation of typhoons and tsunamis, pull people from the rubble of earthquakes, respond to acts of terrorism by trying to save its victims, and we so simply and unmindfully continue to open doors for people who need help by feeding the hungry and clothing the homeless. The great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught that at the end of the spiritual quest is not some kind of ecstatic communion with God; there is only active indebtedness.
The truth that underlies the truth of all spiritual paths is that something is asked of each of us not only as Jews, not only as Americans but as human beings—to live lives filled with purpose and meaning, to make our lives matter by reaching out to others, and the path to purposeful living begins with gratitude. We can live our lives with a sense of entitlement or we can live our lives appreciating that we are called upon to complete God’s Creation through acts of helping to repair the world.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a man who crash-landed his plane. He emerged from the plane just before it burst into flames. A reporter asked him what was going through his mind as the plane went down. He answered, “I realized I hadn’t thanked enough people in my life.”
During this Chanukah 5774 and this Thanksgiving 2013, we give thanks for our ability to form communities of caring and concern, to take responsibility for a world which desperately needs our help, to feel compassion and pain for others’ sufferings, to understand that we need to act and do whatever is reasonably required of us to bring healing to the world, and to live with a consciousness that it is good for us to live with a sense of indebtedness. God’s blessings are indeed many. Hodu Ladonai Kee Tov, Kee L’Olam Chasdoe—Give thanks to God for God is good.
May your Chanukah and Thanksgiving be filled with the warmth and blessings in our lives, and may we act to share our blessings with those who need our help. Amen.