Thanksgiving Message for Interfaith Service,
Rabbi Richard Plavin
November 23, 2014
Tov l’hodot L’Adonai
It is good to give thanks to the Lord
That is what the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 92 and that is why we are here this afternoon. Indeed, it is good to give thanks to the Lord because we have so very much for which to be grateful. One blessing we must not overlook is that we are many faith communities worshipping God together. We give thanks for living in our blessed democracy, the United States of America, where our Constitution protects every community’s right to worship according to the dictates of their faith and protects the sanctity of their holy places. This is no small blessing. In many, far too many, parts of the world, religious communities cannot gather together. Different religious groups, or even sects within religious groups, relate to one another not with love or even tolerance, but with violence. As we join together in worship today, we affirm the words of the Psalmist: The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in Truth. The Psalmist expressed that same thought in the words we all sang together just a few moments ago: Hine mah tov u,mah naim – Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity!
Leviticus 23 is the Torah’s calendar of holidays. Perhaps if one of those holidays were Thanksgiving it would make some sense for that to be my text today, but of course, that can’t be the case, so why did I choose to look at this chapter? My attention is drawn to verse 22. “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” We may well ask, why this agricultural law about proving for the poor in the midst of the holiday calendar?
The commentaries on the Torah explain this very clearly. If in the midst of your holiday celebration, when you are so cognizant of all your blessings, you do not recognize your responsibly to share your good fortune, then your festival is a perversion. It is not a spiritual occasion, but merely a time to fill your own belly. As you engage in your observance of the holidays, with their many lavish festive meals, you dare not forget your neighbors who have less.
Our life experiences, both the sweet and the bitter, must be goads to us to reach out to others in love. The Torah says it clearly: And you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our painful experiences must motivate us to make life for others less painful.
For people of God, gratitude must be a central value in life. In Judaism, we have a practice of saying a blessing for every benefit. Jewish children learn these blessings in religious school and are taught that before you bite into the apple, you must say the appropriate bracha: “Praised are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has created the fruit of trees.” Our liturgy contains hundreds of these blessings, each specific to the benefit we are enjoying. The essential point is this: the requirement to say that blessing is a big STOP sign. It says before you put that cookie in your mouth, stop and think: How fortunate are you that God made this treat available for your enjoyment? Are you sufficiently cognizant of how many children go to sleep hungry every night, not only in third world countries, but right here in our own town and throughout our state?
For people of God, gratitude must engender a moral imperative. Deuteronomy 15 tells us, “There shall be no needy among you—for God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance.” The Torah here is not intended as a description of any reality. It is rather a prescriptive vision of what we need to work towards. We all know too well that a great a proportion of the world’s population lives in a state of deprivation, lacking the basic necessities of life: clean water, sanitation, nutritious food, health care, education. Too often the predicament of the poor appears to us as virtually hopeless. But for people of faith,
Recognizing that everyone in this world was created in God’s image, that all of us are God’s partners in perfecting this world, we cannot rest as long as the blessings we enjoy are not shared by all of God’s creatures.
Last year I had the privilege of speaking at Concordia Lutheran Church at this season. I wanted to share with you today a passage I read there written by Rabbi Milton Steinberg.
Seven years before his death in 1943, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized in Dallas. After weeks recuperating indoors, he was finally permitted to go outside. Rabbi Steinberg told of that experience in a sermon. This is what he said:
“…as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience–all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…. The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high…. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth–like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the buildings–the golden glow of sunlight. It touched me, too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing…. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children, in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed. And then I remembered how often, I, too, had been indifferent to sunlight; how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it. And I said to myself — how precious is the sunlight but alas, how careless of it are men…I was reminded, to spend life wisely, not to squander it.”
Friends – just think about the wonder of a sunny day. How often do we take that blessing for granted, or do we pause to say, “How great are your works O Lord!”
As we gather with friends and family this Thursday Thanksgiving, may we feel God’s blessings that are with us each and every day, and may those blessings spur us to action to help our neighbors and all people in the world less blessed than ourselves, and may we declare with hearts full of joy, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His loving kindness is forever.”