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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).