The Fourth Pilgrimage Festival
The Thanksgivukkah train is about to arrive. By now, you do or do not have your Menurkey and you either love or absolutely hate this great American “mash-up”. And if there is more to be said, let it be about making these days meaningful for all who experience them, rather than the fabulous coincidence of this occurrence this once in 70,000+ years.
Despite the 20th century debates within American Orthodoxy over whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving because of its non-Jewish roots, the notion of giving thanks is quintessentially (but not uniquely) Jewish. We are, after all, named for Yehuda, Leah (and Jacob)’s fourth son, whom she names Yehuda because, according to Rashi, she is grateful for having been given more than her share. This understanding of gratitude teaches that we each deserve a certain amount of goodness, but for everything above and beyond we should be grateful. This attitude would seem, if nothing else, to be a good antidote to the risk of taking for granted all that we have been blessed with.
But there are other ways of thinking about gratitude as well. One approach that I’ve appreciated comes from the great 20th century rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner z”l, who, ironically, opposed the celebration of Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hutner, in his important multi-volume work of Jewish thought, Pachad Yitzchok, teaches that the root of the word hoda’ah (gratitude) has two meanings: 1) gratitude for good bestowed – like todah and 2) admission or acquiescence to the testimony of another – like modeh. He continues that the reason for these ideas being joined in one Hebrew word is that deep within the human subconscious is one’s desire to be self-reliant, without the need for help from anyone else. When we express gratitude, contrary to our own inclination, we admit that we’re not alone in this world; that we cannot do without help; and that ultimately we are diminished without each other.
In his highly compelling book Give and Take, Adam Grant writes the surprisingly sad tale about Jonas Salk, whose discovery of the polio vaccine is responsible for saving countless lives and alleviating great suffering. But his life after that breakthrough is much bleaker than one might expect given his fame. As Grant tells it, Salk violated “the unwritten commandment” of scientific research which includes “thou shalt give credit to others.” Salk couldn’t see past his own tireless labor to acknowledge the contributions of others who were integral to this discovery. In the end, while his students were devastated by his lack of gratitude, it was Salk who paid the price: being shunned by the scientific community, not receiving the Nobel Prize, and being comparatively unproductive for the rest of his life.
These two understandings of gratitude have their parallel in the two holidays that come together this year in Thanksgivukkah. The gratitude of Thanksgiving seems to me to be about recognizing the abundance in our lives – that we have more than we need. We express gratitude for this abundance, as evidenced by the plentiful food on our tables – and then of course, embracing the new American tradition of excess, we shop. In contrast, Hanukkah is about reminding us of what Salk ignored: that we are best when we realize that we are interdependent and not independent. The story of the miracle of the oil teaches us just that: when we think that the military victory is the result of might, the literal blood, sweat and tears of the Maccabees, we are reminded that the true miracle is not human alone but rather shared with a God who would intervene to allow us to survive both physically and spiritually. The requirement to publicize the miracle of the oil reminds us to acknowledge that alone we are limited but, in partnership — with God and with each other — we are incredibly powerful. This theme is resonant in the opening words of Maoz Tzur which we sing immediately following the Hanukkah candle lighting blessings. “Maoz tzur yeshuati… v’sham todah nizabeach – My mighty rock of salvation…and there we will offer thanks.” At Hanukkah we recognize that our power, which we demonstrate through the act of bringing light into this world, truly comes through that divine-human partnership, and for that we offer thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving/Hanukkah, whether you’ll mash it up or not, don’t forget to acknowledge those people in your life who are your partners in bringing light into the world, whether at home, work, or in the grocery store, and tell them that you couldn’t do it without them.
Rabbi Benjamin Berger is Associate Program Director at The Wexner Foundation. His complete bio can be found on our staff page.