Revealing True Meaning of Thanksgiving

Bible Does Not Preach Complacency — It Demands Justice

First Thanksgiving: We’ve been giving thanks for centuries. Maybe it’s time to be a bit pickier.
JEAN LEON GEROME FERRIS
First Thanksgiving: We’ve been giving thanks for centuries. Maybe it’s time to be a bit pickier.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 22, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Let’s face it: Once you get past the turkey and stuffing, this whole Thanksgiving business raises as many questions as it answers.

We’ve all been hearing since we were kids that this is the great all-American holiday, the one that belongs to everyone regardless of color or creed. Its simple, universal message, we learned, is to thank God for our good fortune. What could be the problem with that?

You’re probably expecting me to complain about the God thing, but that’s not a real problem. Most of us recognize that there are things in the world beyond our control or understanding, and it doesn’t much matter what name we give them. As long as things are going well, it’s appropriate to remember that you owe some thanks to those around you, to those who came before and to whatever mysteries lurk behind our luck and fate.

No, I want to take issue with the other part of Thanksgiving — the bit about our good fortune. The idea of spending a day each year being grateful for what we have, it seems to me, ought to depend on what we actually have. If things are going great, whoop it up. If you’ve had a rotten streak, though, there’s no point in pretending otherwise. The right thing to do in that case is to identify the obstacles blocking your way and kick them aside.

In fact, this business of thanking God for whatever you end up with is what gives religion a bad name. If you’re told to be grateful for what you’ve got, the none-too-subtle implication is that you shouldn’t ask for more. What you have is what you deserve.

I bring this up because we’re hearing a lot these days about how the poor envy the hard-working rich and threaten class warfare, which presumably is a bad thing. If you’re poor, so the thinking goes, it’s your own fault. Incidentally, this is not just a Republican campaign slogan. Celebrated liberal pundits constantly assure us that the brave new age of free markets has flattened out the world, giving everyone an equal shot at the brass ring. All you need is talent, guts, a first-class education and a fast Internet connection. Come up with a great idea, find investors and hire a bunch of poor slobs to assemble the pieces for minimum wage. And if those poor slobs are looking for their share of the free market, there’s always the lottery.

It’s easy to understand why entrepreneurs and investors would want to offer thanks for fortune’s bounty. Getting everyone else to join the chorus, on the other hand, takes a bit of doing. That’s where the holidays come in. The last weekend in November has become a festive civic ritual, steeped in gravy and sweet potatoes, swathed in family warmth and redolent of the dutiful prayers that loom so large in our separate religious traditions. We may or may not invoke God and his great mercy, but the idea is the same: We’re grateful for whatever we have.

Taking a deeper look at the religious roots of the Thanksgiving ritual can help us identify what’s off-kilter here. For all our invocations of God and faith, the message we draw from the traditional texts isn’t necessarily what was originally intended.

Much of the ritual’s language and logic is drawn from the Book of Psalms, with its endless exhortations to give thanks for God’s mercy. Judaism, for example, celebrates every major holiday with a recital of the signature Psalm cycle known as Hallel, climaxing with the words of Psalm 118: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth forever.”

It’s a refrain that runs throughout the traditional literature. Jesus looked to Psalm 37 for his message about the meek inheriting the earth. One of the most familiar passages in the Talmud is commonly translated as: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” This teaching cites as its source a passage in Psalm 128: “When thou eatest the labor of thy hands, happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.”

Look again. The Talmud isn’t preaching the submissive acquiescence that the passage initially suggests. And if you look at the proof-text, that’s not what the psalm is talking about, either. Psalm 128 recounts the joy of eating the fruits of your own labor. If somebody else is eating your fruit, that’s nothing to be happy about or grateful for. The Talmud makes the same point. The rich person, the Hebrew text says, is ha-sameach be-chelko, meaning one who is happy with his portion — not the lot he ends up with, but the assigned share that he’s entitled to. The true message of the Bible, re-emphasized in the Talmud, is to be satisfied with your own share and not to try commandeering your neighbor’s.

By way of context, it’s important to remember that when the Israelites first came out of Egypt, each family was assigned a portion of land, the main source of wealth at the time. And while one could buy and sell and get rich, every 50 years the portions reverted to their original owners. To be rich was to be content with your own portion and not be scheming after your neighbor’s. And if someone else grabbed your portion, you didn’t give thanks — you got mad.

It’s instructive, too, to read the psalms that follow the iconic No. 118. After urging gratitude for God’s eternal mercy, the psalmist grows steadily angrier in the ensuing psalms over the wrongs inflicted on the Israelites. By the time we get to Psalm 136, we’re repeating the opening words — O give thanks, for his mercy endures forever — but now the mercy looks different. Instead of visions of salvation and the wonders of nature, we’re treated to a bloody litany of revenge upon Israel’s enemies.

Then comes Psalm 137. You may recognize its opening: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” You may not remember its conclusion: “O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that repayeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock.”

That’s Thanksgiving as the Good Book intended it: Gratitude when we receive our fair share — and hell to pay for those who grab it away. Class warfare? That’s when people enrich themselves at others’ expense. Getting it back is called justice.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.