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Toward Shabbat: Toledot

In the past few weeks, we’ve lived through antisemitic rants and conspiracy theories dominating news headlines, exposing the pervasiveness and rise of Jew hatred in our country. Simultaneously, we’ve witnessed the rise to power of hateful and dangerous leaders in the Israeli government. Over the last two weeks, the pattern has intensified. There was another mass shooting in the United States, at the University of Virginia, killing three members of the football team. After Shabbat, we learned of a local plot to shoot up synagogues that was foiled right here in our very own neighborhood in New York. And just a couple of hours later, yet another hate crime/mass shooting occurred, this time at the LGBTQ Club Q in Colorado Springs, killing five people and wounding 18. We woke up Wednesday morning to another report of a mass shooting, this time killing six people in a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, in addition to two terrorist bombings at bus stops in Jerusalem, killing a teenager. Dozens more were injured in these attacks and even more are traumatized. It’s hard to arrive at Thanksgiving weekend amidst such madness, hatred, insecurity, fear, and violence.

Today’s version of Thanksgiving, however, wasn’t born out of triumph or communal bliss either. On the contrary: President Lincoln institutionalized Thanksgiving as a national holiday on October 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. In his proclamation he stated:

While offering up the ascriptions justly due to God for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In the midst of deeply uncertain, violent, and contentious times, gratitude was the attribute that President Lincoln wanted to cultivate in the people. as a pathway toward hope and healing.

In our own tradition, gratitude is on our lips upon waking:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ:

I give thanks to You living and everlasting Sovereign for You have restored my soul with mercy. 

In Judaism, we recognize and acknowledge the basic gift of being alive and having the chance at another day.

In the Torah, the first expression of gratitude comes unexpectedly from Leah, upon the birth of her fourth child, whom she named Yehudah.

As it is written in Babylonian Talmud Berakhot:

וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַי: מִיּוֹם שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת עוֹלָמוֹ לֹא הָיָה אָדָם שֶׁהוֹדָה לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עַד שֶׁבָּאתָה לֵאָה וְהוֹדַתּוּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת ה׳

And Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: From the day the Holy Blessed One created the world, no one thanked God until Leah came and thanked God, as it is stated: “And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she said, ‘This time I will give thanks to God,’ and thus he was called Judah (meaning gratitude)” (Genesis 29:35).

From this commentary, we understand gratitude as a recognition of receiving more than we expect or feel we deserve. It’s a case of “I feel blessed and then some…” And it is most powerful that these words of gratitude come from Leah, who herself is deprived of love and affection; though she carries a profound sense of what is missing, she can simultaneously hold a feeling of plenty and gratitude.

In another text on gratitude, Maimonides writes:
Four individuals are required to render thanks: a person who had been sick and recuperated, a person who had been imprisoned and was released, people who alight [at their destination] after a journey at sea, and travelers who reach a settlement (Mishneh Torah, Berakhot 10:8).

Gratitude, Maimonides explains, is the expression of thanksgiving to God for coming through a dangerous journey.

And, finally, Psalm 100, the Psalm for gratitude, is an ode to living in joy and in service to God. It’s a hymn overflowing with gratitude for the ability to give thanks.

Perhaps it is this very notion of gratitude, “hakarat hatov,” acknowledging the good, that deserves the most attention in the times we are living in. Gratitude is not a negation of suffering or a pollyanna approach to our lives and the world. It is a commitment to recognize the goodness and blessing that is present and true. In his poetry, the American poet Billy Collins hearkens back to a mantra his mother would tell him amidst his whining and complaining as a child: “Fall to your Knees and thank God for Your Eyesight.” As he matures, Billy comes to recognize how the mantra gives him pause. It gives him breath amidst life’s frustrations and inconveniences and, ultimately, he falls to his knees in gratitude to his mother for giving him eyes to see the world.

I don’t have easy or simple answers to the pains we are enduring as a people—as a country—or even to the private suffering that is part of living. I do know, however, that a religious life is incomplete without gratitude. We must not only praise what is good—we must also cultivate a vision of what is possible and grow the goodness. May we all have such Godly eyesight and may that peace, harmony, tranquility, justice, and unity be within view.


Fall to your Knees and Thank God for Your Eyesight

By Billy Collins

was my mother’s usual response
to my bouts of childhood whining.

I can’t find my other sneaker.
Fall to your knees and thank God for your eyesight
There’s no one to play with this early.
Fall to your knees and thank God for your eyesight
My bicycle only has three gears.
Fall to your knees and thank God for your eyesight

It’s a line best delivered in a rural Irish accent,
but my mother didn’t have one of those
growing up on a farm in Ontario, Canada.
Nor did she have much Canada in her voice.
Fall to your knees and thank God for your eyesight, aye?
was not heard in the hallways of our house.

Needless to say, I never fell for it,
though it did create pauses in my trickle of complaints
and maybe cleared some room in my room
strewn with toys—small tanks and smaller soldiers—
a little space to think about God and eyesight
but not for long, of course, the demands of childhood

being what they are. And the repeated words
sometimes made me think twice before
whimpering about a bruise on my knee,
or foolishly I would say the line just when she did,
the two of us chanting Fall to your knees…
which is as far as I got before she appeared

in the doorway and pinned me to the floor with that look.
No surprise to know that nowadays
I say it every chance I get:
to everyone under this roof including the dog
and under my breath to people on the street—
this one grousing about the price of eggs or gasoline,

that one furious that the bus is late,
especially when I realize those voices are mine—
me peevish in the bedroom, me bitching about the rain,
me and my broken shoelace, me in the sand trap,
me forgetting to fall to my knees to thank her
for giving me the eyes to see the world, to regard these words.