We have a tendency in our world to dismiss many nice American customs because they are “goyish,” not of Jewish origins. If you ask me, that is often a display of a lack of confidence with our own religion. If you read the accounts of many of our greats who grew up in America, you will find that most of them had no trouble being fully acclimated Americans, including baseball and apple pie, while at the same time developing and loving their Yiddishkeit. The recent book Just Love Them, written by Yisroel Besser and published by ArtScroll, makes that abundantly clear in describing the life of the legendary m’chaneich (Torah educator), Rav Dovid Trenk zt”l. There was just something healthy about living a life of accepting and not constantly rejecting – in other words, normal.
A classic example is Mother’s Day (and the nochshlepper Father’s Day). What a beautiful American concept of taking off a day to recognize the greatness of our parents. Yet we find ourselves rejecting the idea as not Jewish. After all, “every day is Mother’s Day.” We are supposed to honor our parents 365 days a year (or the 354 days of the Jewish year).
Then, of course, there is Thanksgiving. We are supposed to be grateful every day of the year. Isn’t that what Modeh Ani (“I am thankful to You”) recited each morning is all about? And this business about eating turkey: What kind of Jewish custom is that?
My response is: What about doing t’shuvah, repenting? There are multiple sources that we are enjoined to repent every day of our lives. See, for example, Pirkei Avos (2:15) or the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – Hilchos T’shuvah (2:6). Yet we have a special day of the year, Yom Kippur, that is dedicated to emphasizing the need to do t’shuvah.
The same is true with Kibud Av VaEim, honoring parents. Yes, we must honor parents every single day. But it is a wonderful idea to take a day to appreciate the greatness of our parents and the importance of showing that appreciation. Gratitude is the same. Taking a day off to recognize that we have so much to be grateful for is a uniquely American concept, part of what makes this country so great.
Must Thanksgiving, or may Thanksgiving, be celebrated with a turkey dinner? That is subject to halachic debate, not for this column now. But gratitude? That is a basic to Judaism, which unfortunately is missing by too many of us, socially and politically. Ingratitude dates to the earliest days of man, as Adam blamed his wife Chavah for his being submissive to the serpent. As Rashi comments (B’reishis 3:12) “Here [Adam] displayed ingratitude.” For a comprehensive discussion on the topic of gratitude, see Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (5732:73).
As an aside, I would like to add that, years ago, my father, who did eat turkey on Thanksgiving, discussed that practice with a brother-in-law who strenuously objected to that custom. They decided to bring the sh’eilah to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. My father asked Rav Moshe if there was any halachic objection to eating turkey on that day. Rav Moshe responded, “It’s a kosher bird? You will make a brachah on it? Then why not!”
Back in my yeshivah days, I was fortunate to have a relationship with Rav Yitzchak Abadi shlita, who was a poseik as well as a world-renowned, wise advisor to many about life’s issues. He is credited with saving countless marriages.
Rav Yitzchak was most definitely out of the box as a poseik, daring to take a novel approach to many halachic matters ranging from kashrus to taharas ha’mishpachah (family purity). That earned him the ire of those who could not tolerate his innovative way in handling those matters. This despite the fact that everything he ruled was based on the Shulchan Aruch and teachings of his rebbe in his younger years, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l.
In a private moment, Rav Abadi confided in me that he could tolerate the controversy surrounding some of his rulings. What he could not tolerate was k’fiyas ha’tov, the betrayal of an ingrate.
“When I know that I saved someone’s marriage and then he turns around and badmouths me, it is the one thing that I just cannot handle.” “You will see,” he said, “that nothing will bother you more than the ingrate.”
Truer words were never spoken.
There is an old Yiddish saying: “Ich veis nisht farvus ehr hat mir azoi fil feint; ich hub em nisht azoi fil toivas getun – I don’t know why he hates me so much; I haven’t done him so many favors.”
So often, rabbis and shuls find that it is the people they have helped the most – financially and/or socially – who are the first ones to leave the shul over some minor gripe and find themselves elsewhere. Or they verbally criticize those who have helped them.
In this season of thanksgiving, we do have a lot to be grateful for as a Jewish community in America. We sometimes ask for bad press, and the press is glad to give it. But we are so fortunate that society has still allowed us to function freely and not be subject to the awful hatred that exists in the open in many other countries. I only wish we would learn to be more appreciative of those in the political arena who have been so good to us. Ingratitude is an attitude that is totally unbecoming of us, and can only lead to bad news down the road.
Right now, I am thankful that while the political future for Jews in America and in Israel may not be as fortunate as it was under the current administration, it looks a lot better than the administration before that. The good news is that the bad news is not so bad.
Happy Thanksgiving! Or be happy to give thanks.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.