Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Grateful, yet prayerful Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is in fact a very Jewish holiday, a wonderful opportunity to be grateful for living in a free and open democracy, proudly as American Jews, and to join together family and friends for a 'chag', yet one where we are not forbidden to do creative labor as on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
As Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday, it creates some meaningful liturgical moments, where we can give special meaning on this special day.
  • מזמור לתודה 'Mizmor L'Todah' (Psalm 100), is recited each weekday during P'sukei D'Zimra, after the Hodu section, in which we praise God for our heritage. The opening words of this short psalm are 'A psalm of thanksgiving. Shout out to God, all the earth - Serve the Lord in happiness, come before him with joy.' What more appropriate way, on this day established to give thanks for a successful harvest, and renewed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as an ode to our national heritage, to apply this gratitude when we recite this psalm, which comes in place of the 'Todah' sacrifice. This sacrifice was originally brought to the temple by those who had experienced distress and been saved from it (Psalm 102 has been understood as an exposition on the bringing of this offering). Especially in these hard economic times, it is all the more important to appreciate our family and friends with whom we will celebrate this day, as well as other gifts which have been bestowed upon us.
  • תחנון Tachanun, is a series of prayers of penitance and supplication recited daily on weekdays, with an extended version recited on Mondays and Thursdays, days on which the Torah is read and thus thought to have additional significance to make requests to God. In Nusach Ashkenaz (used by Conservative and many Orthodox liturgies), the tachanun service includes the recitation of Psalm 6, the piyyut Shomer Yisrael, and additional verses, supplemented by additional reflections on Torah reading days. Because of its intense and somber nature, tachanun is omitted on days of a joyous nature, both on the calendar and as a result of life cycle events, like a wedding, brit milah or a house of mourning (which is a time set aside to reflect on the loss of the beloved and comfort mourners, not for personal supplications).
  • So, should we recite tachanun on Thanksgiving? While I am generally opposed to altering the liturgy without good reason, there is a long tradition, especially among Hasidic communities, of omitting Tachanun on days of joy for their community, like the yahrzeit of a rebbe or the anniversary of a joyous communal event. I believe that for those who choose to do omit tachanun on Thanksgiving, in can certainly be seen in this tradition. For the American Jewish community as a whole, this day can be seen not only as an occasion for general gratitude, but for the strong and secure home that we been able to build here as Jews, and for the refuge that this land has served (though not a perfect one), for millions of our people escaping pogroms and other persecution. Though I do not usually search for 'excuses' to skip Tachanun, I feel this one presents itself for me, as one who is proud to be a traditional Jew and an American citizen.
  • Psalm 81 is recited each Thursday at the conclusion of the Shacharit service, but many of its words are especially meaningful on the fourth Thursday in November, especially its opening verse, "Prasise our God for our strength, shout to the God of Jacob." The psalm continues with a praise of God for guiding Joseph in Egypt, who ensured a bountiful harvest (think Thanksgiving feast!) for the Egyptians and his family. The people are also reminded that "There should bee no strange god be among them; neither shalt [they] worship any foreign god," (v. 10) reminding us of the privilege to live in a society with both freedom of religion, and separation of Church and state. The final verse of the psalm states, "And they shall be fed with the fattest of wheat, and I will make you satisfied with honey from the rock." May we be thankful for our sustenance, even if it is not an actual 'harvest, and in the words of Psalm 90:
ויהִי, נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ-- עָלֵינוּ:
וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ.
May God's graciousness be upon us, and may he establish for us the work of our hands.
Happy חג ההודיה\הודו Thanksgiving/Turkey Day!

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