Thanksgiving – How to Give Thanks
On September 24th, 1789, the US House of Representatives passed the First Amendment which read “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Contrary to common belief, this law was not intended to cordon off government from all religious activity. Rather, it was meant to prohibit a single official state religion as was practiced in England. What’s the proof? The very next day after the amendment was passed, by a two to one majority, a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving was passed…an American religious holiday. Though the religious origins have obviously been phased out in favor of engorgement and hours of commercials (and some football), the holiday does nonetheless afford us an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual nature and benefits of a thankful life.
Judaism’s concept of “tzedakah” (charity) is that it’s best done in a manner in which the recipient does not know the giver. This is done to spare the recipient the embarrassment of needing to rely on others for their well-being. Interestingly though, the opposite is true of a gift, the purpose of which, according to the Talmud is to “increase dearness and friendship in Israel.” In the case of a gift we specifically want the recipient to know about it as it will increase their experience and level of “hacarat haTov” (recognition of good).
There are multiple examples from the Torah about the necessity and the benefits of this character trait. For instance, when the 1o plagues begin, Aaron and not Moses, is asked to strike the water (causing it to turn to blood). We are taught that in as much as the water saved Moses when he was an infant, it would be improper for him to repay the favor with harm. This is just some inanimate matter! All the more so are we required to note and acknowledge the kindnesses that sentient people do for us.
Hacarat haTov is required because it leads to love, which is in and of itself a commandment. The more we recognize the good acts (and qualities) in others, the more we will care about them. The converse is true as well. If we fail to make these recognitions, it will lead us in the other direction and increase our sense of distance and disdain for others.
When we had a Temple in Jerusalem we were required to bring the first fruits of our harvest up to the Temple and make a verbal declaration about our gratitude. The fear was that if we had a good harvest we would come to feel that it was all our own doing (the root of idolatry by the way) and fail to create the proper emotional connection to He who actually arranges the crops to grow, the rain at the right time, etc. It needed to be said out loud because when we articulate ideas they become more real to us. As a corollary to this, we are instructed to verbally recognize the good others do on our behalf minimally three times daily-to the guy who holds the door for you in the subway to the barista who gets your latte, practicing sincere and honest thankfulness will engender in us a sense that there is a lot of good in the world, make us happier, and make us into better human beings.