The Case for Still Giving Thanks (With a Little Help from Hebrew)

In the best of years, Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. Its complications are multi-level, valid, and not easily overcome. Many of us who grew up in the dress-as-Pilgrims-and-Indians-school-day era now understand the more problematic origins of the holiday. In today’s charged political climate, it can be hard for some families to gather round the table and contend with conflicting worldviews. It also kicks off the holiday shopping season, with Black Friday now beginning ON Thanksgiving and workers’ rights being violated all over the place. And how should a vegetarian respond when someone says “Happy Turkey Day!”?

It’s seriously fraught, y’all.

But it’s also one of the most precious days on my personal calendar—and my reasons for loving it, and needing it, are also complicated and multi-level, and not easily written off.

My own extended family is multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and thereby this holiday became a common shared festive gathering decades ago because there was room for all of us. No specific or divisive religious ideology required; a meaningful but absolutely ecumenical opportunity for us to all give thanks and gorge ourselves together. In my nearly three and a half decades of living, I have never missed Thanksgiving with my family. It hasn’t always been easy to make it, but come Thanksgiving Thursday, I am in my mother’s kitchen, and that is a sacred tradition.

I also deeply believe that gratitude is vital. Especially in times of stress and tension, being able to hit the pause button, breathe deeply and give thanks for the good in our lives is sometimes necessary to our mental and physical health. I like to think that Thanksgiving for most of us is an evolved and evolving holiday, shedding and rejecting its “first Thanksgiving” narrative, and serving now as an annual reminder to immerse in gratitude. Co-opting and re-envisioning a holiday’s trappings is a pretty standard practice; just ask anyone with a Christmas tree if it’s in their living room representing the Pagan winter solstice.

The best thing about our contemporary Thanksgiving practice is that it has become a holiday that directly obligates us to give thanks, which I think is a good thing. I actually feel that taking time to give thanks should be a mandatory, life-affirming practice—and the Hebrew language agrees with me.

See, modern Hebrew doesn’t actually have one stand alone word for grateful. Instead, to express that concept, we literally say bound by thanks – אֲסִיר תּוֹדָה (ah-SEER toh-DAH) in the masculine, and אֲסִירַת תּוֹדָה (ah-see-RAHT toh-DAH) in the feminine.

So even if this month (or year…) has brought stress or strife, I hope this week we can all be bound by thanks. If anything, despite the tumult of the world around us, I think we should lean even more deeply into our gratitude, soak it in, and draw strength from it to continue dealing with the rest of the issues in our lives. Take some time to count your blessings, take stock of everything enriching your life, and be gently grateful for the goodness and joy that you bring others and they bring you.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of y’all.

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