This week, throughout our nation, Americans will celebrate the Thanksgiving holidays. This year’s celebration is different. It comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a scourge that has claimed more than 257,000 American lives and has felled approximately 1.4 million persons worldwide.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving, which falls on the last Thursday in November, marks the beginning of a joyous holiday season in the United States. Families and friends gather for a heartwarming meal, watch football games, and look forward to a holiday season that culminates in the celebration of the secular New Year. New Year’s Eve is also special, marked by parties, dinners and friends joining in celebration.
But, this year is different. America and the world have been roiled by COVID-19. Instead of getting together for large festive celebrations, health experts advise that we stay at home, gather virtually and avoid travel. The painful effects of these limitations are stark. Safety measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing, are the order of the day.
So, it is understandable to ask an inescapable question. What do we have to be thankful for during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2020?
The answer to this question lies at the essence of Judaism itself. Though traditional Thanksgiving celebrations are uniquely American, the idea of giving thanks lies at the core of Jewish values.
The Jewish value of hakarat hatov teaches us to be grateful for life itself. The literal translation of the phrase from Hebrew is “recognizing the good.” Judaism makes no promise that life will be easy, free of pain or devoid of existential challenges. Rather, Judaism teaches that by following traditions and recognizing Jewish values, every life has meaning and significance.
The idea of “recognizing the good” is easy to state but is challenging to grasp, as we cope with new limitations on our personal freedoms that have resulted from the pandemic. In past years, families would travel long distances to celebrate Thanksgiving. The traditional meal, most often made up of turkey and trimmings, might easily expand in number, as friends and visitors were invited to share a joyous occasion. Yet, this year is different. But, the differences being experienced throughout America and the world do not mean that there is nothing to give thanks for this Thanksgiving.
Despite severe sickness and limitations caused by the coronavirus, there is much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving:
Let us be grateful for the thousands of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and health care workers who put themselves at risk to treat those stricken with the virus and care for our health.
Let us give thanks for the teams of scientists, in America and in the world, who have labored mightily to find ways to limit and eradicate this newest pestilence.
Let us give thanks that we live in an age where miraculous inroads have been made to develop vaccines that ultimately promise to limit and tame this virulent disease.
Let us give thanks for the bonds of family that may be nurtured virtually via the internet, through Zoom and other platforms.
Let us give thanks for the gifts of friendships. While face-to-face meetings have been curtailed, we are able to stay in touch through video phone calls. When confronting our limitations, even brief calls to friends and family members can boost our spirits.
Let us give thanks for our communities — the greater Jewish community and our individual communities through our congregations, Jewish community centers and chavurahs. While it is not presently safe to congregate as we did before the onset of the virus, we can maintain our bonds of community virtually and by reaching out to members of our congregations.
Let us give thanks for our heritage. American Jews, and Jews across the face of the globe, comprise a seamless nexus with traditions, customs, ethics, and teachings that span almost 6,000 years. As we wrestle with the coronavirus, let us draw strength from Judaism’s basic value that life, itself, is a gift from Hashem and is to be treasured, be it long or short.
Let us give thanks for the portion that God has afforded each of us. Let us remember the teaching of the Pirke Avot: “Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their own portion.”
Let us give thanks for the promise of a better future — the day when the coronavirus will yield to vaccines, immunities, and medical treatments that we cannot yet contemplate.
Finally, let us give thanks for the promise of hope. If we are suffering, let us hope and pray that suffering and illness will yield to refuah shlema — the healing of body and spirit. Let us pray that next year we may return to our traditional celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday, surrounded by family and friends, and free of the present limitations that we are all experiencing.
This editorial appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of the Jewish Herald Voice and is reprinted with permission.