I am humbled and honored by this opportunity.
How many blessings did you recite today? Count them. Just how many? Was it for rain, for sun, for waking up, for the fact that your body works in a designated order, for food, for seeing a friend or a rainbow, for the love of your child? In the Jewish faith we are commanded to bless a hundred times a day, and yet we think, what is there to bless an ordinary day? Going to work, driving car pools, paying bills, raking leaves, shopping, sitting in traffic? What activities do we participate in that are religious that would elicit from us the utterance of a prayer? Somehow, we have drawn a fine line that separates our world into the religious and the secular. In reality there is no such line. One hundred blessings are for an ordinary day. Not a holiday.
When I was very young I would get confused. You see, I started at a Jewish Day School where we said blessings when we washed our hands, ate our bread, finished our meal. And then my parents enrolled me in public school, and I went to religious school only on Sunday. And there in public school we pledged allegiance to the flag, we invoked God’s name only when we wanted our team to win in football, when we wanted a good grade on a test, but I would get confused between Sunday School and public school, between the sacred and the secular.
I saw no line. I’d ask my public school teacher why we didn’t say the blessing over the bread we ate, or why we didn’t have a copper cup on the sink to pour water over our hands, and why others did not invoke the blessing when we washed. And my brother told on me. He told my parents, he said he’s doing all the stuff from religious school at public school, and the kids are going to make fun of us.
But when it came to Thanksgiving, we learned just like we did at day school, we learned of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, the first explorers and the Pilgrims and of course the Mayflower. We learned of Plymouth Rock and made turkeys from construction paper, and we were told how pilgrims came to this country for the religious freedom. But to me we seemingly were not religiously free.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not for prayer in public school. I’m for prayer and praise of life. I’m also most definitely for the separation of Church and State that most definitely exists for us Americans. As people of faith we understand the critical importance of each being able to worship in his own way without coercion or pressure. So I am in no way advocating prayer in school, the teaching of religion in our public institutions. I am not, however, for the separation of secular and religious.
For us, for people of faith, that does not exist. No moment itself is secular. No moment is sacred. Only blessings evoked and blessings ignored. When I heard the story of Thanksgiving in public school I brought to class canned goods just like we had been told to do at religious school. I thought we would march around the room just like we did at Sunday School, placing the canned goods under a sukkah, the harvest tabernacle, and offering prayers of thanksgiving for all the goodness that we had. Instead, I was instructed to stand before the class at Show and Tell with two large cans of candied yams and explain that everything came from God, and that we had days like Sukkot and Thanksgiving to remind us of God’s goodness. Yes, my first and perhaps shortest sermon.
Yet even now, as then, I question why are we taking the thanks and giving out of Thanksgiving? Why have we eliminated the sense of gratitude in our lives? This highly religious national holiday is about gratitude to God, and how we should be messengers of God, about how we should show our thanks by giving. Believe me, I love turkey and dressing and football as much as anybody, but part of me mourns what I believe we have lost by secularizing concepts such as thanks and giving.
We lose specialness about life, and in it we have lost a sense of gratitude in the process.
A Midrash story is told of two angels who are sent to earth, each with a basket. One was told only to collect only human petitions. The other holding a basket, was to gather humanities’ prayers of gratitude. The first angel cried and complained of the burden to carry a basket so filled, so heavy, loaded with all the petitions. And the second angel cried too, for his basket was all but empty.
Have we gotten the concept that is implicit in the common phrase “count your blessings”? The command to recite a hundred blessings a day, to recognize, to be aware of and filled with gratitude for the goodness that overflows our lives and infuses us with sustenance—health, happiness, and a sense of purpose. Carefully, we have scored the line between religious and secular. We forget to whom we belong. We can easily believe that we achieve what we earn, that it is ours alone.
In his classic novel, A Hundred Years of Solitude, author Gabriel Garcia Marquis tells of a village where the people were affected with a strange plague of forgetfulness, a kind of contagious amnesia. The plague started with the oldest inhabitants and worked its way through the population. The plague caused the people to forget the names of even the most common everyday objects. One young man, still unaffected, tried to limit the damage by putting labels on everything. “This is a table. This is a window. This is a cow.” And at the entrance of the town, the main road, the man put two large signs, one read the name of the village, “Macando.” The other large one read, “God exists.”
The message I get from the story is we can and probably will forget most of that which we learn in our life, the math, the history, the chemical formulas, the address of the house we first lived in when we got married, and all that we will forget will do us no harm. But if we forget to whom we belong, if we forget that there is a God, something profoundly human in us will have been lost.
Do we today recognize God, the one who is the source of life and of all of our blessings?
The story is told of a great man of great wealth who used to be kind and generous in giving, but soon he would not be bothered with even opening his door to the poor and the homeless. They would knock and seek his assistance. He grew angry and cold-hearted. He had worked so hard to earn his money, and he thought to himself if he could do it, they could do it as well. His charity would only encourage them to depend on the community. So he closed his doors and stopped his giving. He was said to have grown bitter and angry. And then tradition tells us that Elijah, the great prophet, visited the man. His house was exquisite. His finest things money could buy were seen everywhere. He sat and provided Elijah with a wonderful and great meal. They ate in a great dining hall which had two long walls, one with windows on each side that went from ceiling to floor. The other with beautiful mirrors that went from ceiling to floor as well, and allowed you to see the splendor of everything in the room. Elijah asked the man how he had achieved such greatness and wealth. The man stood, took his pipe, and walked around the table and began to praise himself—“I have worked hard. I am a self-made man,” he said. “I’ve been able to see in this world opportunities that others have overlooked.” “Ah,” said Elijah, “a man of good judgment and superior vision.” “Well, yes,” the man proudly said. Elijah then stood up in the great dining room and asked the man to turn his back to windows and face the mirrors, and asked him, “What do you see?” “Why, myself,” boasted the man, and he smiled with pride. “Now turn around and face the windows, and what do you see?” Elijah asked. Looking through the glass the man said, “I see other people.” “Exactly,” said Elijah. Both are made of simple glass. One is covered with silver, keeps you from seeing others, but only allows you to see oneself. Sometimes, our abundance, our good fortune, makes us self important, and we forget that we should be grateful that we are indeed blessed. At the same time, we become so self-impressed, thinking we have made it due to our own actions, we become blind to our need of others, and we are cold.
The philosopher Martin Buber thought that all relationships could be divided into two types: I-It, and I-Thou. I-It relationships are service-oriented. We have numerous such encounters daily. Get me the paper. Get me a glass of milk. Do this. Do that. The gas station attendant who fills your car. We see what we want and what they can do for us. I-Thou relationships, however, transform us. They are relationships in which we see the entirety of the other human being, and they see us. In all I-Thou relationships there is an eternal Thou, which is God. Evil, injustice in the world, comes when we live in a world of I-It relationships, when we fail to see the Divinity in all humanity.
Some years ago I was on the way to lead Sabbath morning services at Washington Hebrew when I witnessed a messenger of God. You see, I was concerned for Tenley. That is what I and the children of the various high schools in the area called him. He was a homeless man who wandered up and down Wisconsin Avenue corridor. He would come often to the combined Thanksgiving meal offered by St Alban’s, Annunciation, and Washington Hebrew Congregation. He was a joyful man. He would sing and talk to anyone who would listen. He used to stay at the bus shelter at Tenley Circle. This day he was in the soaking rain. The shelter had plenty of space. Just a commuter or two in the shelter. I stopped my car. It was very strange behavior for Tenley. That bus shelter was sadly his makeshift home. I asked him why he was getting soaked. I insisted he moved. I told him he was going to get sick. He said, “I can’t. I can’t get inside the shelter. These people will get wet.” “What?” “I scare them, he said, so they stand out in the rain when I’m in there, but when I move out, they all stand inside and stay dry. I’ll be alright.” I left him my umbrella, and he left me with a life-long lesson.
This homeless man who so many walked by, had more compassion and concern for his fellow than so many of us. He saw then not as objects, but as people. He would rather stand in the rain so others could stay dry than to care for his own needs. Too many in our society are forced to the edges, to the fringes, so we can stay dry and comfortable. Tenley sadly died later than year, but I will never forget his humanity.
However, tonight in America, the land of the brave and the free, the world’s wealthiest nation ever, thousands will make their homes in the streets and alleys. They will use cardboard boxes and benches to find shelter to make a simple home. There are more homeless today than there were after the Great Depression, and the numbers are on a steady rise. The gap between rich and poor widens. These, who we walk by, the Tenleys, and the others, are far too great, far too troubling to us.
Have we forgotten what this holiday is to inspire us to do, to offer thanks, and then to give?
In the fall of 1621 some 382 years ago, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated on these shores. Of the 102 passengers who landed at Plymouth Rock, 51 died within the first six months. Their graves had to kept level with the ground in order to save them from desecration and to keep the Native Americans from knowing the frightful toll of casualties. Not a single had been spared by death. The survivors lived on the fringes of starvation in a hostile, uncharted world. They never knew what it was to have enough, or to be secure. They stood alone against the forces of nature and man. A supply boat came in the fall of 1621. It carried fresh supplies and fresh fruit, and the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock also harvested the corn that they had been taught to plant and the gourds, the squash, and the other produce they had reaped in the fields. These tired and battered, these the ones who had gathered to give thanks to God, to hold the first American Thanksgiving, a holiday based on the Biblical festival of Sukkot.
I was taught the concept to count the blessings I said by my own mother, who was an immigrant to these shores like the early pilgrims who came for religious freedom. My mother came, too, for religious freedom. She came from hiding in the forests of Germany to escape the Nazis where she was forced to live in the woods like an animal. Through strength of character and the grace of God she who saw hatred and death in unspeakable manner, she survived to teach me, her son, the blessing for seeing a rainbow. And she has always felt blessed to live here in America where anything is possible. In a free society that respects and honor the worth of every person no matter what their station in life, no matter what their faith.
Yes, in America anything is possible, even on Thanksgiving Day one generation later her son can stand preach God’s word as a rabbi in the National Cathedral. The grace of those early pilgrims was that they knew God’s blessing, and they were thankful for what they had, and they celebrated the richness they had, and they shared whatever they had with others.
The famous founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem-Tov, used to tell a story of a holiday spent with a community of wine growers, with a community that reaped the most wondrous of grapes of the vineyard and decided that they would make the most glorious wine from the special harvest. Everyone was instructed to bring the best of their wine to be mixed in a giant vat in the center of town. So everyone carried his bucket high on his head, climbed the ladder to the big vat; each took a turn pouring his bucket into the vat to make the sweetest, best wine. Finally, Baal Shem-Tov arrived in town. The people gathered in the great anticipation. Baal Shem-Tov opened the spigot, filled a large and beautiful goblet and began to say the blessing, “Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam boray p’ri hagafen,” “Blessed art Thou oh Lord, Creator of the fruit of the vine.” He took a big, deep sip of the wine. And then he spat it to the ground. It was the weakest, sourest, poorest wine he’d ever tasted. Baal Shem-Tov began to weep. He began to weep, you see, each person had pulled through his vineyard the best and the most beautiful, crushed them and made them into the sweetest wine in their own vineyard, but when it came time to share their wine, they came to town and carried that bucket high on their head, and they thought, “Who will know what I contribute to that vat?” So each brought, rather than their best wine, their least. They held back on their gifts, spoiling the wine by failing to give of themselves the best they had to offer.
And so, too, it is with us. Each of us carried that bucket high on our head, each of us in our thanks decides what we are willing to give. Let us recognize that true thanksgiving requires of us a giving of ourselves. If we are thankful for freedom, we must be concerned with the plight of those who still wear chains of poverty or prejudice or social injustice. If we are to be grateful for God’s abundance, we will share that abundance with the ill fed, the ill clad, the ill housed. If we are grateful for good health, then the plight of the disabled and the home-board will have a legitimate claim on our financial resources. The art of thanksgiving means ultimately no appreciation without receiptation.
Every day is thanksgiving on the calendar of the religious soul. To the 100 prescribed blessings we might add the following—a simple petition: You, who have given so much to me, give me one thing more. Give me a grateful heart, Oh God.
On this Thanksgiving Day, let each of us remember the true source of our blessing, and let that sense of gratitude