In many ways, these are not easy times for gratitude. The world is rife with violence, injustice, and suffering. We have, in all likelihood, passed the point of no return on catastrophic climate change, terror and hard-heartedness have gripped much of the Middle East, and here in our own community, hunger and homelessness are on the rise.
So, as Thanksgiving approaches, how do we give thanks?
We might learn from our matriarch, Leah, who one Talmudic sage describes as the first person in the history of the world to express gratitude to God. How can this be? Generations before Leah, many others, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca offered thanks to the Holy One. But Leah’s gratitude is unique—because it is so hard-won.
All of her life, she is unloved by her husband, Jacob, who devotes himself to her prettier younger sister, Rachel. For years, Leah laments this reality, naming her first three sons in a manner that expresses her pain and disappointment. But when her fourth child is born, she calls him Judah, meaning, “This time, I will give thanks to God.”
What has happened here? How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing? Rabbi Shai Held notes in his commentary: “Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped. Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does. It is crucial to emphasize that Leah's gratitude does not magically set everything aright and banish every other feeling she has. Her disappointment is real, and deep. But she is also grateful, for despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings. With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.”
In other words, disappointment and gratitude are not exclusive. In this life, we can’t always get what we want; indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the contrary, we sometimes don’t even get what we need. Disappointment is inevitable. But that need not crowd out the possibility of gratitude, nonetheless. As Rabbi Held concludes, “Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness.
In this spirit, I’ll end with WS Merwin’s poem, “Thanks”—and wish us all a good Thanksgiving holiday.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is