Call it the November dilemma.
Every autumn, as we sit down to Thanksgiving meals, a lot of us find ourselves silently pondering the same question: What are we supposed to do?
As Jews, we have our holiday routines: Shabbat dinners with candles, Kiddush wine and ha-Motzi over the challah. On Rosh Hashanah, we have apples and honey. Pesach? There’s a whole manual to tell us when to dip, when to drink, even how we’re supposed to sit.
Then there’s Thanksgiving. We gather to eat — the same people, at the same table, with the same enticing aromas wafting in the kitchen. But we don’t have a script.
Sure, we feast on turkey, argue politics and watch football. But what about the ritual? What about the meaning?
That’s where this Thanksgiving Haggadah comes in. It’s our attempt to help you focus, at least for a few moments, on gratitude, a theme that’s both deeply American and deeply Jewish.
The Passover Haggadah has its four questions. To enhance your Thanksgiving, consider these four, each designed to inspire conversation, storytelling and reflection. Then ponder these four blessings, included to help you carry these ideas into your life.
We hope you’ll find a few minutes between the appetizers and the pumpkin pie to ask, answer, learn and share. And then, after dishes are cleared and the guests scattered again, carry the gratitude into the days and months ahead.
When the Biblical Leah gave birth to her first child, she proclaimed, “This time I shall thank the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35) She named him Yehuda — Judah — Hebrew for “thankful.” To be Jewish means to be thankful. The Talmud teaches that a person should find reasons to say 100 blessings each day. When we exercise our hearts to appreciate, and train our eyes to take notice of the goodness all around, we invite in the blessings of wonderment, vitality and joy.
Discuss: How can you embody gratitude?
BLESSING: Giving Thanks
Some of Judasim’s oldest texts emphasize the centrality of gratitude: “Give thanks to God for God is good! God’s lovingkindness is eternal.” (Psalm 107:1) “It is good to thank God and make music to Your name!” (Psalm 92:1). And traditionally, the first prayer we say every morning, Modeh Ani, expresses gratitude for the very act of waking up: “I gratefully thank You God, for You have restored my soul within me with compassion, abundant is Your faithfulness.”
It’s hard to imagine a time more divisive than the one we’re living in now. But President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War. Besides encouraging Americans to give thanks even amid difficult times, Lincoln also urged them to offer “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” In other words, he meant for Thanksgiving to be a day of both gratitude and repentance.
Discuss: What’s one thing you can do to mend our divided world?
BLESSING: Bringing Light
The idea that Jews are to be a “Light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) shines through the words of Emma Lazurus: “I lift my torch beside the golden door,” and the lyrics of Irving Berlin: “God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above.” May we act in virtue and goodness to bring light to our homes, our communities and our nation. May God’s love ignite our resolve to bring the light of peace to the world.
In the words of the Torah’s priestly blessing:
“May God bless you and protect you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God reach out to you in tenderness and grant you peace.”
Thanksgiving and Sukkot are both autumn festivals that celebrate the bounty of the harvest. Both celebrate the courage of pilgrims escaping religious persecution and heading for a new land. Both are holidays of hospitality. On Sukkot, we welcome the ushpizin (“exalted guests”). On Thanksgiving, we recall the way the Wampanoag Native Americans welcomed the Puritans, feeding them and teaching them the skills they needed to survive.
Discuss: When have you welcomed a stranger — or been a welcomed stranger?
BLESSING: Opening the Door
Bruchim ha-baim, Blessed are you who have come here, exalted guests! Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed angelic guests by preparing a meal with the choicest ingredients, we welcome one another with an abundance of food, warmth and love. As our sages teach, “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.” (Talmud Shabbat 127a) and “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, give thanks to God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) The word order in this verse is significant: We should eat, be satisfied and then offer blessing. We are often less inclined to pray — or acknowledge the source of what we have — when we are content, when our bellies and our lives are full. It is when we find ourselves hungry and in need that we more readily think to reach out in prayer.
Discuss: How can we be mindful even when we feel satisfied?
BLESSING: Marking the Moment
The Lakota people have a prayer thanking the mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit nations for sharing the sacred wheel of life. This day we are aware of the intricate weave of our lives and our connection to the changing seasons.
We Jews express gratitude to the God of Life who enables us to reach this beautiful day:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.
Blessed be God, the Eternal Source of all life, for keeping us alive, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this joyous season!