In 1863, Abraham Lincoln announced that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. He used the following words to describe the importance of expressing gratitude:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…
Lincoln’s poetic description of the importance of Thanksgiving contains a number of important themes: expressing gratitude for the forces in the world we can’t always see (God), appreciating the peace that the natural world brings, and allowing ourselves to feel overwhelmed with gratitude.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter another articulation of gratitude. We encounter Jacob who is fearfully about to reconnect with his brother Esau, years after taking away the birthright from him. Convinced that Esau is still angry with him, Jacob appears to be preparing for a confrontation with Esau. He splits his family in two as a defense mechanism and right before meeting Esau, he instinctively breaks into an authentic expression of gratitude to God: “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses and of all the truth that You have done with Your servant.”
These two expressions of gratitude happen at opposite ends of the spectrum. For Lincoln, it is the culmination of a year of abundance, blessings, and benevolence. For Jacob, gratitude is expressed near a fearful encounter; it is shared in an anticipatory, hopeful manner.
This past week, I took my five year old daughter for her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I found the entire experience quite emotional. My daughter has been wearing a mask since she was three years old. I’m not sure that she remembers a past where masks were not a part of her life. Although she was afraid of the vaccine, she was excited and emotional herself about the possibilities that lay ahead, the ability to unmask with friends indoors, or the potential of going to classes outside of school that we had previously not allowed her to take part in.
I found myself almost instinctively reciting a blessing as she sat on my lap to get her shot. The words that came to me were the blessing that we say on a blossoming fruit tree in the month of Passover, which includes the words that God created a world that does not lack anything. I was drawn to the notion that both Lincoln and Jacob express -- that the events of the past, as chaotic and unfortunate as they have been for the past eighteen months, contained blessings that were sometimes difficult to see. At the same time, I felt the need to acknowledge gratitude towards the unknown ahead and pray that truth and blessings would continue to guide our lives.
One of my favorite dimensions of Jewish Day School education is the focus on gratitude. Gratitude for what was, and gratitude for what has not yet happened. Finding room for gratitude even in dark moments and recognizing the impact of others in our lives, even in moments when we believed we achieved something on our own.
We are nearing that wonderful season in American life when we can gather as a family to express gratitude. When we go around the Thanksgiving table, let us not just express gratitude for the food on the table, but let's push ourselves and our children to be grateful for the seemingly hidden gifts of the past and the unknown gifts of the future.