Thankful for Thanksgiving

The concept of giving thanks seems to be universal, something expressed – in one way or another – in every religion and every culture. The impulse to give thanks may even be instinctive: Dogs don’t learn to wag their tails. Predatory animals aren’t taught to refrain from attacking their benefactors. In a mood of bitter humor, Mark Twain commented that if you were to find a wounded and hungry dog on the street and dress its wounds and feed its hunger, that dog would never bite you. And that, Twain claimed, is the main difference between dogs and men.

Although the phenomenon of human free will is often perceived as intrinsically good, Twain’s wry observation emphasizes that it is only as good as the choices we make with it: We sometimes use our free will to overrule our best, purest instincts – including gratitude.

Most societies value the expression of appreciation and recognize its ability to smooth the rough edges of interpersonal relations. For this reason, we make a point of teaching our children to express thanks from a very early age. We strive to instill gratitude as a habit, even if at times we know that the feeling behind the gesture may be lacking. We sense, intuitively, that a society that devalues or denigrates the concept of gratitude – that defines relationships by functionality alone – cannot, and probably ought not to, thrive.

The same is true of our relationship with God; giving thanks in a religious context is an extension of the basic impulse to be grateful in an interpersonal context. In Judaism, we offer thanks to the Almighty for each gift, even as we ask (or remonstrate) about what we lack. We do not modulate our gratitude based on an accounting, on some evaluation of profit and loss, nor does giving thanks necessarily mean that we are satisfied. The very first blessing we say in the morning, our very first act of the day, expresses thanks that we are alive…even if we are ill. We make a blessing over the gift of sight even if our vision is dim. And we give thanks for having clothes to put on…even if they are threadbare. These obligatory blessings guard us against taking our most basic gifts for granted.

It feels easier and more natural to give thanks when everything seems to be going well, when we have peace and security, health and bounty. But when we are in a situation of war and fear, of sickness and poverty, when our inclination is to cry and curse, it is much more difficult – but it is still possible and necessary. When he was poor and starving, the famous Reb Zushya is said to have thanked God for giving him such a good appetite! It is no coincidence that Reb Zushya’s profound capacity for gratitude was matched by a deep relationship with God.

The structure of giving thanks on a regular basis, even in hard times, encourages us to focus on the positive side of life. It does not mean that we forget the dark side, just that we keep a true perspective, giving the positive side its due. Sorrow and anxiety should not extinguish our ability to say “thank you” for our blessings, even when they are obscured by pain. Harder times can shake us from complacency and may enhance in us the ability to perceive the good as a gift to be appreciated and acknowledged – in good times and in bad.

In the end, feeling and expressing gratitude is good for us. The Almighty does not “need” our thanksgiving. It is we who benefit from feeling and expressing it. Our Jewish liturgy contains a seldom-noticed prayer, hidden within a prayer, which acknowledges this. The phrase appears at a high point in the service, yet it is said to oneself: “We thank You for inspiring us to thank You.” This goes well beyond being thankful for our objective gifts. It is a recognition that even the ability to know that we should be grateful is a gift from God and worthy of thanks.