By Rob Goldberg
The Pilgrims of Plymouth were influenced by the idea of thanking God for their bounty and linked their first thanksgiving with the Wampanoag people in 1621 to the festival of Sukkot. Much has been written about these Puritans who were well versed in bible are related deeply to Sukkot as their harvest festival. They also identified with the ancient Israelites, comparing their voyage across the Atlantic to the crossing of the Red Sea.
But giving thanks is more than biblical for Jews, one could argue that it is our essence.
“The Chovos Halevavos (Duties of the Heart by Bachya ibn Pakuda, 11th century Spain) explains that the entire foundation of our service to God flows from our recognition that we owe the A-mighty our thanks,” writes Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler. We also say thanks from the moment we awake; the Modeh Ani prayer, said before one’s feet touch the ground upon rising, states: “I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness!”
Giving thanks is embedded in our identity. Interestingly, the word “Jew” doesn’t appear in the Torah, rather our ancestors are called the “Children of Israel,” connecting them and us to the patriarch Jacob who was later renamed Israel. “Jew” is derived from Jacob’s fourth son, Judah. We read in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze (Genesis 28:10-32:3), that Leah bore a son, saying: “This time I will thank (odeh) the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah (Yehuda) which means “thanksgiving.”
As we bring in this Shabbat a day after celebrating Thanksgiving, like Leah, I proclaim my thanks: To be alive. To be sheltered. Nourished. And gifted with the opportunity to do my part in leading our beloved Jewish Buffalo. And as we continue to experience this festival week in an extraordinary year, I want to offer my gratitude to this community for its collective efforts these past nine difficult months. Volunteer leaders and professionals alike have come together under unprecedented duress and pivoted. We didn’t know what the months would be like when we assembled make-shift Zoom Seders last April to connect with our friends and family, but we survived, innovated and in a way, even flourished.
So, despite the challenges we continue to face under the cloud of orange, we have so much for which to be thankful. And while there are dark days ahead, I can make out that illusive light, a flicker albeit of a post-pandemic future, at the end of the tunnel. My hope for all of us is that we continue to find the strength to do good work, giving generously of ourselves in the days to come. May Shabbat bring you blessing and rest, and another opportunity to thank the A-mighty for your bounty.
PS – I’m pleased to also share a poignant Torah thought about this week’s parashah from my friend and teacher, Rus Devorah Wallen. Click HERE to listen.
Rob Goldberg is the CEO and Executive Director of the Buffalo Jewish Federation