Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Happy Thanksgiving! For many, Thanksgiving gathers us with family and friends, inviting us to reflect gratefully on our blessings. For others, Thanksgiving can be a day of quiet despair and even shame for those who don’t feel grateful and festive.
Like all holidays, Thanksgiving espouses values that resonate during the rest of the year. Its deeper meaning, and the spiritual invitation of this secular day, is to rouse us to lives of blessing long after our gatherings and festive meals.
Yes, Thanksgiving can do just that. Let’s call it not Thanksgiving but (Thanks)giving. If Thanksgiving calls us into gratitude for our blessings, (Thanks)giving invites us to consider whether and how much others receive blessings by the ways we walk in the world.
We ask this (Thanks)giving question, however, not to elicit thanks but precisely for an opposite reason. As Maimonides taught in his “Ladder of Charity,” higher forms of tzedakah (charity, generosity, public service) don’t seek thanks. Instead, to serve a higher purpose, we give and live in ways that may conceal our generosity. Jewish spiritual wisdom calls us to live in ways that give and bless others sometimes anonymously — in monetary charity, volunteerism and other acts of kindness and compassion. With anonymous giving, recipients don’t know their benefactors and feel beholden, and givers give without accolades or social power for feeling owed a favor. We best give and serve in altruism — because it’s right, because we honor the mitzvah to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), and because in a healthy society we all take care of each other (Talmud, Shevuot 39a).
What’s more, scientists confirm the adage that giving is its own reward. Behavioral psychologists find that in cultures around the world, generous people are happier. Even government neuroscientists show that altruism improves physical and emotional health.
(Thanks)giving asks us how well we live in altruism’s ways. How much thanks might we merit (but not actually seek) if others could thank us? Do we give mainly in public so others can thank us, or do we do random acts of kindness with quiet altruism? If today we don’t like our answers, then Thanksgiving is a day for us to reboot our commitment to live, give and love with altruism — open to receiving with grace whatever thanks may come, but in the spiritual light that giving is its own reward. That’s a (Thanks)giving worth living the whole year long.
For all our blessings, may Thanksgiving gather us in gratitude for our blessings. Now let’s live in ways that truly give blessings – worthy of that spirit all year long. Happy (Thanks)giving.