Thanksgiving is one of my favorite pieces of what scholar Charles Liebman called American Civil Religion. In addition to the turkey and stuffing, which I love, and the desserts I enjoy even more, and of course a few Black Friday bargains, it is the spirit of the holiday that I particularly value.
Thanksgiving is a day for us to express our gratitude for the richness of the blessings each of us is privileged to enjoy. It is a day when we also give thanks for the enormous blessings of this country – the foundational freedoms of expression, religion, and assembly on which we build a vision of equality and liberty and justice for all.
Thanksgiving is built on a myth that posits a vision and a dream – that people of starkly different backgrounds with fundamental differences of opinion and belief might still form collaborative friendships based on mutual respect, and sit down together to give thanks for the multitude of blessings they collectively share. There is something holy in that vision that makes it so compelling and lasting.
But this Thanksgiving, that vision seems terribly remote. In our fractured and polarized America, each sees the other as immoral enemies and mortal threats to our country’s American values. Writers on the right claim that those on the left are “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term,” and writers on the left claim that those on the right are trying to tear down democracy.
In the Torah portion this week, Joseph and his brothers are also fractured. The Torah teaches that Joseph would bring bad reports of his brothers to their father. The brothers hate him so much that “V’Lo Yochlu Dabro L’Shalom – they couldn’t speak a friendly word to him.”
I want so badly for us to restore the dream of the myth of Thanksgiving. How can we inspire us to restore a sense of trust and faith in each other, a vision of us sitting down together, embracing the truths and values we share while honoring and respecting what makes us different and unique?
The Mishna teaches “one recites a blessing for the bad just as one does for the good.” (Berakhot 54a). The Talmud explains for every Midah, for every measure that God metes out, we should offer thanks.
The Hebrew word for thanking – Modeh is related to the word Midah, which can mean “measure” but can also mean “virtue.” The Midot – the holy measures or virtues, guide us toward the kind of ethical and spiritual life we all should seek to cultivate – virtues such as humility, forbearance, generosity, graciousness, lovingkindness, modesty, and peace.
We often develop our capacity for virtue through the struggles and challenges we confront in life. Loss teaches us the value of life and the precious relationships we share with loved ones. Illness teaches us sensitivity and compassion. The injustices we endure inspire us to work for justice and a better world. Disappointment can teach us the value of patience and perseverance. A broken heart can teach us the virtues of love and forgiveness.
Isn’t it possible that there is more than one way to love America? Isn’t it possible that there are virtues to be found in the hearts of those with whom we disagree?
The rabbis often refer to Joseph as “the Tzaddik – the righteous leader.” Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, teaches that the task of a Tzaddik is to raise up before God the good deeds of the people of Israel. Only after Joseph’s trials in Egypt does he become the Tzaddik who looks for the good and not the evil in his brothers.
If we truly want to be righteous, then we need to work to make the myth of Thanksgiving a reality, where we can sit down together to give thanks for all the blessings we share, and to recognize the virtues we share despite our disagreements.
On this Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for the goodness we experience in life – the gifts of good health and prosperity, loving family and friends, a warm, vibrant, and supportive community, and the remarkable freedoms so many across the globe can only dream to know. And let us learn to embrace the virtues we share, and build on them the foundation of a renewal of the American dream.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”