How do you celebrate Thanksgiving during a pandemic?
The medical, financial, social and emotional challenges, coupled with the stresses we are experiencing within civil society, have made this a hard time to focus on our blessings. How can we express gratitude at a time of such difficulty?
Somehow we must. Our country is not in perfect shape, and our lives are at times unrecognizable. But we have much to be grateful for, and it’s quintessentially American — and Jewish — to express our gratitude amid hard times.
Thanksgiving was declared an American holiday by President Lincoln in 1863, while the Civil War was raging. His essential message was that during difficult times, we must not lose sight of the good. In his proclamation, Lincoln emphasized that the year had “been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
While he noted that the ongoing Civil War was one “of unequalled magnitude and severity,” Lincoln found solace in the fact that “peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.” The 16th president also recognized that these realities were “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, Who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy,” concluding that they should be recognized as such “solemnly, reverently, and gratefully … with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
We’ve lost so many lives this year, and the devastation continues as we enter a second wave of the pandemic. And yet, reassuring reports of multiple successes in the development of safe and effective vaccines have brought renewed hope that the end of this pandemic may be in sight. This development should move all of us to give thanks to God and pray for the fulfillment of this hope.
As Jews, we are always charged with a core mission to feel and express gratitude and thanksgiving. It is in our very name. The term “Jew” is a translation of the Hebrew word “yehudi,” meaning “from the kingdom of Judah.” Judah — deriving from a Hebrew term for gratitude — was named as such by his mother, Leah, as an expression of her gratitude for his birth. While the names of her previous three sons (Reuven, Shimon and Levi) all made reference to her ongoing struggle for the love and attention of her husband, Jacob, here she shifted from focusing on what she was missing to a focus on what she had: “This time I will give thanks to God, and so she called his name Judah.” (Genesis 29:35)
We carry that name, and so we must carry on Leah’s legacy of gratitude. Even as difficult challenges surround us, we have much to be grateful for.
Our tradition transforms our matriarch Leah’s expression of gratitude about specific circumstances into a prayer of thanks for all times in our Amidah prayer, which is recited three times a day. In the Modim blessing, we express our gratitude “for our lives that are entrusted in your hand, and for our souls that are in your safekeeping, and for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good deeds that are with us at all times.”
Often that expression of thanks comes after a tearful and troubled prayer focused on desperate and intense personal needs. Yet our tradition asks us to wipe away the tears of sorrow and shift to expressions of gratitude.
While we are experiencing hard times, as we approach this year’s celebration of Thanksgiving, I’m trying to take the time to recognize the blessings in my own life, to identify what I have to be thankful for and express that thanks to God. That, more than anything else, will make this year’s scaled-down celebrations exceptionally meaningful.