Make America Grateful: A Jewish Approach To The Season Of Giving


In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, guests at my parents’ Thanksgiving table enjoyed good company and turkey with all the trimmings.  From ageless Grandma Egeth to my youngest Cousin Stephen, we recalled the Pilgrims hosting the Indians at a three-day feast in 1621.  We were proud to be Americans.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, my sixth-grade class was anticipating the short pre-Thanksgiving week with its holiday songs, arts and crafts presentations and films.  Perhaps there would be no tests and less homework.

Troubling Changes

When my mother drove me home that afternoon, she was sobbing to the point that she couldn’t carry on a conversation.  Lee Harvey Oswald had just assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

During the funeral, the somber drums during the procession bade farewell not only to the President, but also to the easy optimism of the Baby Boomer generation. Giving thanks was difficult that year.

Perhaps four years later I learned that our cherished history of Thanksgiving omitted disturbing details. Descendants of the colonists stole much of the Native Americans’ land.  For centuries, American economy flourished in part because of slave labor.

Until recently, many jobseekers with disabilities were placed in “sheltered workshops.”  At most of these segregated worksites, they earned scant wages for making brooms, cleaning offices, handling mail, etc.  No one encouraged them to progress towards their maximum potential or pursue work that actually interested them.

I believe that with a positive attitude and meaningful actions, we can work towards celebrating Thanksgiving 2020 with renewed faith and optimism.

Lessons from Todah–the Jewish Experience of Giving Thanks

When our matriarch Leah gave birth to her fourth child, she declared “….odeh ET Hashem”—I shall thank God.”  “”Odeh and “Todah”—the Modern Hebrew word for “thank you,” derive from “the same root letters Yod, Dalet, Yod.  Those letters also form the root of “viduy”—confession.

Our tradition reminds us that when we give thanks, we are ‘confessing’ that nobody can truly ‘go it alone’ and that we should be humble and generous as we enjoy God’s bounty.

Leah named her son “Yehudah,” which derives from the same root as “Todah.”  We are “Yehudim”—Jews.  Our very essence is gratitude.

The Todah Sacrificial Offering

A worshipper in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple had the option of offering a Thanksgiving Sacrifice to God (Leviticus 7, 11-15.)  As the Kohanim (priests) officiated, the Levites sang Psalm 100–“Mizmor leTodah, Psalm of Thanksgiving, Sing joyfully to the Lord”

The worshipper’s offering included a large amount of cakes and matzah, in addition to meat.  The Law required that the worshipper’s portion of the offering be consumed in one day—thereby encouraging (practically forcing) him to invite others to share the meat, cakes and loaves.

Joyous Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot celebrations should include the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the Levite (Deuteronomy 16: 14.)  Excluding them defiles the festival meal, so that it becomes merely “joy for the belly” (Maimonides, Laws of the Holidays, 6:18).

Giving Thanks Is Not Limited To One Day Each Year

Mizmor Letodah is recited during most weekday morning services.  It’s an opportunity to be thankful—for a relationship, a talent or the renewal we feel after a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps the noblest form of gratitude is enabling needy individuals to thrive and thereby find their own reasons to give thanks.

You can learn to be thankful from thankful people.  Often, I listen to “Grateful” as sung by Michael Feinstein:


How many celebrants will be truly grateful and regain their faith in America by Thanksgiving 2020?   It depends on our actions and God’s blessing.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.