Thanksgiving Day will soon be celebrated in the United States (of America) to commemorate the original day of thanksgiving, when according to some historians, “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. (https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving) The traditional image of this feast looks like this:
However, chapters 42 and 43 of the Book of Genesis give us a different insight into what is meant by the word, thanksgiving. Rabbi Menachem Feldman, in his article The Thanksgiving Jew (Chabad.org), offers some excellent similarities between what we read in the Bible about Jacob and his 12 sons and what brought puritans to Plymouth in the first place.
The two paintings I have shown here are remarkable in similarity and perhaps this is not an accident when we ponder the meaning of thanksgiving. The first painting shows Joseph (in Egypt) with his youngest brother Benjamin at his feet. Joseph’s brothers who once sold him into slavery do not recognize their brother seated on the throne, but Joseph knows who they are. Judah, the fourth brother has convinced their father, Jacob to permit them to bring Benjamin to Joseph, a condition for freedom for one brother who was kept as a ransom. The painting suggests various serious life-or-death moments of personal encounter and supplication for freedom.
The second painting shows a woman offering food to the Wampanoag chief. All eyes seem to be upon him. The scene is serious, but the friendly smile of the Puritan woman suggests that all those gathered can peaceably depend on each other now that they have gotten to know each other in trust. Looming in the background, however, are trees that simulate a dark fog that clears as it goes up the so-called ‘plymouth rock,’ the first step into or place of freedom.’
The important background to each story is the common hardships that Jacob, his sons, and in particular Joseph and the Puritans faced during their journies to freedom. The Puritans had been searching for a place of tolerance while Jacob and his sons has been searching, however unwittingly, for freedom from their sin of selling Joseph and thereby putting their father into slavery to grief. Knowing the harsh claim of trouble and the absolute need for freedom, both the tribes of Israel and the Puritans naturally feel a closeness in knowing each other, and therefore, as Feldman suggests, feel thankful.
Rabbi Feldman points out that Judah, the fourth brother who takes on the responsibility for the life of Benjamin and his imprisoned brother, means thanksgiving. When Judah was born, his mother Leah said, “This time, I will thank (odeh) the L-rd!’ Therefore, she named him Judah (Yehuda). ” By the way, the Hebrew word for ‘gratitude’ is hodaah. Feldman adds and further indicates that hodaah is the root for the word Judah. Interestingly enough, todah is the Hebrew word for Thank you.
Thanksgiving usually comes from a common struggle with a problem as we see with the pilgrims and the sons of Jacob. It can be argued that this is still true today. Feldman illustrates this by making this analogy: “A mother does so much for her child, yet does the child really appreciate it? The child may only take the mother for granted, thinking that she is doing what she is supposed to do as a mother. After all, argues the child, isn’t this her job? The only way the child can genuinely feel grateful is if he adopts her perspective, if he appreciates all her sacrifices and all the time she lovingly dedicates to him.”
Now I add that in early colonial times and up to the American Civil War, the thanksgiving day meal was celebrated in different ways in different colonies and later in different states. After the civil war, however, President Lincoln realized that both sides of the war had suffered as Americans. He had declared throughout the war nine various times days of thanksgiving and praise but the ninth proclamation set the day as the last Thursday of November 1863 and this day was eventually declared a national holiday.
Being thankful is natural to the human heart, but gratitude still seems to come stubbornly from the recesses of the most difficult human experiences. I don’t think that it has to be this way, but we humans seem to learn only the hard way. Perhaps this is why gratitude and the reasons for true thanksgiving are, in fact, precious.