Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

When I was a student at JTS, the two American holidays that were observed at our daily minyan were Thanksgiving and Independence Day. (And by “observed,” I mean that the exceptionally depressing penitential litany known as Tachanun was omitted from the worship service on both those days. You can’t say we seminarians didn’t know how to party back in the day!) I don’t recall wondering much about that practice at the time, but from the vantage point of all these years it actually does make sense to me that the minyan took note of those specific days because they are precisely the ones on the American calendar that correspond the most obviously to values Jews cherish and should generally be happy to promote. Freedom is the more obvious one, I suppose: we have our own Festival of Freedom, after all, so it’s not much of a stretch to honor our own nation’s version of Pesach, the national festival of independence from Britain that even at the time reminded our nation’s founders of Israel’s liberation from bondage to Pharaoh.

Thanksgiving is more of a stretch. But cultivating a national sense of gratitude and beholdenness to God for the good in our lives is as Jewish a value as it is an American one, and that makes it more than reasonable to devote energy to nurturing that particular virtue. It is, however, not as easy a task as Americans tend to think. And that—the specific reason that it isn’t as easy as it looks—is what I’d like to write about today.

It will come as a surprise to many that the Book of Psalms actually has a poem in it entitled “A Thanksgiving Hymn.” It’s a short poem, complete in only five verses, and focuses on the concept of thankfulness itself, on the quality of feeling beholden to God for all the good in our lives that prompted the ancients to offer the sacrifice called the todah, the thanksgiving sacrifice. (The poem was probably intended to be recited as part of the sacrificial ritual, although in what specific way can no longer be known.) It appears in my own translation of several years ago in my edition of the Psalter, Our Haven and our Strength, published by Aviv Press in 2004, but, in honor of Thanksgiving this year, I’d like to translate it anew here with just a bit more literary latitude than I allowed myself back then. So here goes:

A Thanksgiving Hymn

All who live on earth:

Sound a teruah blast on the shofar to God Eternal.

Serve God Eternal joyfully.

Come before God in gladness.

Know well that the Eternal is the God who made us…and not we ourselves who did, for we are God’s people, the sheep who graze in God’s pasture.

Come into God’s imbued with gratitude and into God’s courtyards with songs of praise on your lips.

Give thanks to God—for that is the way for humankind truly to bless God’s name, for God is truly good and God’s mercy truly does extend over the whole earth, as does God’s loyal faithfulness to every single generation.

Readers who know the Psalms well will notice quickly that I’ve translated according to the received text here, not according to the way that the word lo (written in the traditional text with the two letters lamed and alef) is consciously misspelled by traditionalists to yield an entirely different word with a wholly different meaning. But my decision to translate the text as it has come down to us is not at all without precedent and, in fact, that is how one of the most interesting ancient homilies based on this psalm reads it as well. So let’s start there.

The homily, really just a fragment of an ancient sermon, is preserved in Bereshit Rabbah, an ancient collection of midrashim and lessons based on the Book of Genesis. And the passage, taught in the name of one Rabbi Judah ben Simon (in his day was one of the great rabbinic preachers of Roman Palestine), suggests that the psalmist’s point was not merely to promote gratitude as a virtue worth emulating, but to say something far sharper and more challenging about the concept of gratitude itself and specifically to address the question of why exactly it is so difficult truly to embrace.

At first blush, the question will strike most moderns as almost simplistic: you look around at the world God made, you take stock of the boons God has granted you, you feel fortunate to have garnered so many of God’s choicest blessings…and that makes you feel grateful. Why should that be complicated or difficult? Doesn’t everybody do that?

Rabbi Judah apparently didn’t think so. And so, starting from that specific vantage point, he reads the psalm as though gratitude were something that the average soul needs intentionally and mindfully to cultivate, something it is entirely possible to wish to feel but actually to be unable to summon up at will within one’s own bosom…which is not at all the same thing as paying lip-service to the concept because you’re convinced that you are supposed to feel that way or even because you want to feel that way. And the barrier to feeling deeply thankful for all you have is precisely that idea that almost two millennia later someone would label solipsism.

The word will not be familiar to almost anyone, but it suits Rabbi Judah’s lesson to a tee. Coming from two Latin words mashed up into one (solus, which means “only” or “alone” and ipse, which means “self”), it references the notion that no one can be sure that anything other than him or herself is real. It’s not that crazy an idea. Since all we know of the world is based on the perceptive abilities we bring to our contemplation of existence and since our perception of everything is based on the specific way our human brains interpret the sensory data we collect by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the things in our world, there is almost by definition something subjective about all that we know of the world. So the solipsist takes that thought and runs with it, wondering how anyone can be sure that anything at all really exists other than him or herself. And this rarified, pretentious, more than slightly sophomoric approach to existence leads, probably almost inexorably, to the second dictionary definition of solipsism: “extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.”

Most of us believe the world outside ourselves exists…and we believe it pretty firmly. But it is precisely the traces of the solipsistic worldview that most of us manage somehow also to harbor deep within the way we understand the world—it is those enduring traces that, in the opinion of Rabbi Judah, constitute the barrier that keeps most of us from truly embracing the quality of gratitude. It’s a lesson worth taking seriously. Faith in God, the rabbi teaches, must be predicated on the bedrock assumption that, to quote the psalmist, “it was God who made us,” and, to quote the rabbi, “not we who created our own selves.” In other words, the injunction to enter the gates of God’s city imbued with gratitude rests on the rejection of the self-centered, deeply self-referential supposition that, in the end, it is we who have created ourselves, who were and are as the authors of our own existence, of our own lives...and who have only managed to fool ourselves into believing that what we perceive of the world outside ourselves is fully real. Perhaps a three-way comparison would help clarify: the narcissist doesn’t notice the rest of the world; the egotist doesn’t care about the rest of the world; but the solipsist isn’t even sure that there is a rest of the world. There’s some of all three in all of us. And each constitutes its own stumbling block on the long path over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. (The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, so the challenge for passengers is not to be strong enough to pull a sleigh or to be knowledgeable enough to navigate the woods, but to be fully present in the sleigh and on the journey…both to thanksgiving and to Thanksgiving dinner.)

Rabbi Judah finds scriptural support for his notion in a different biblical book entirely where, in a famous passage, the prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh—he means to reference Pharaoh Neco II, the king of Egypt in his own day—as an obese hippopotamus wallowing naked in the mud of the Nile and not just vaunting himself as though he were the god who made the Nile, but moving on from there to spout the ultimate in solipsistic nonsense: “I even made myself,” the prophet imagines the king declaring (and presumably concomitantly daring any of his subjects to wonder how exactly that could possibly have worked). What the king meant—or rather what the prophet was imagining the king of Egypt would or could have meant had he actually been a talking hippo—who knows? But what the prophet himself meant is crystal clear: in the king of Egypt he saw a megalomaniac so self-absorbed as really to think of himself as his own progenitor, as his own creator, as the sum total personally of all that he could be totally certain existed in the world. Now that’s solipsism!

And it was this uncertainty about the reality of reality that Rabbi Judah imagined to be the great stumbling block over which one who would truly approach God’s temple in gratitude must be careful not to stumble.

The rabbi makes a good point. To feel truly thankful to God requires seeing our place in the world clearly and honestly, accepting our ultimate insignificance in the great scheme of things, wondering not whether the world outside our narrow purview exists at all…but whether we deserve to claim even our tiny place in the fullness of God’s creation. In other words, the prerequisite for gratitude is humility, that underrated virtue to which all pay lip service but almost no one truly embraces wholeheartedly. There’s a bit of solipsism in all of us, some part of each of our worldviews that stops at the outer edge of our own bodies, of our own space. We claim to care about the world and its peoples. But mostly we care about ourselves…and precisely because most of us are far more like hippo-Pharaoh than we’d like to think.

So this Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in contemplating the 100th psalm—that’s the poem translated above—and in its ancient cadences to find the path forward to celebrating our American Thanksgiving filled both with a sense of awe-struck wonder at the gifts the Almighty has bestowed on us all and with equal measures of humility and gratitude for what we have in this world. We are not all that is. But neither is God all that is. (Pantheism is no less silly than solipsism, just in a different way.) We’re in this together, clearly. And Thanksgiving is our national day of acknowledging that fact, of stepping away from the fantasy that we ourselves are the Torah and the universe around us, mere midrash…and of embracing the core value of humility in the contemplation of the world so as fully and wholeheartedly to embrace gratitude to God for the good in our lives.

For those of you who will read this before or on Thanksgiving, I wish you a very happy holiday. For those of you reading it afterwards, I hope you had a wonderful time on Thanksgiving with family and friends…and that the barriers we ourselves sometimes place on the path to true gratitude proved easily scalable and fully surmountable. I wish that for all of you, of course. And I wish it for myself as well!

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