Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of a community having a collective feeling. It is remarkable, to me, that people can feel something as a group.
As a Jewish community we are often told how to feel collectively. We are meant to be collectively happy on sukkot, sad on the 9th of Av, and penitent on Yom Kippur.
Our liturgy builds on this collective feeling by conjugating our prayers in the first person plural suffix of “nu”, as in Ashamnu, bagadnu…etc.
With Thanksgiving this week, I’ve started to think about how Judaism treats the collective feeling of gratitude in our tradition.
The notion of gratitude is noticeably absent from the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The exception that proves the rule is when Leah names her son Yehuda, to reflect on her gratitude.
So while gratitude doesn’t play a major role in the stories that made us, it is central to our tefilah (prayer).
Maimonides, in fact, writes that there are 3 key aspects to tefilah: praise, supplication, and thanksgiving. We see these 3 aspects of prayer in our amidah, silent prayer, every day of the week. We see two of them, praise and thanksgiving, appear on shabbat as well.
These prayers repeat themselves 3 times a day every day. Over and over we praise, supplicate and give thanksgiving with the same prayers, in the same order. Occasionally, these prayers are tweaked to reflect the time of year or time of day.
There is one prayer in particular “מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ לָךְ” (‘We are grateful to You), which appears to be one of the most resilient of all the prayers. We say it at least 3 times a day every day ( & 5 times on Yom Kippur), in the same format, with very slight amendments or modifications around the high holidays.
What can we learn from the fact that the jewish prayer with the most consistent formula is the one focused on gratitude?
We tend to show our deepest feelings through consistent actions and words, like a bed time ritual with a toddler. I know I say “I love you” at the same point in the bedtime ritual with my kids every night, no matter how many threats were made on the way upstairs.
The same could be said about the Thanksgiving holiday in the US. We eat the same foods, at the same persons house, at the same random time of day. Our gratitude is expressed through unwavering ritual.
There are times when people may want to skip gratitude, or modify it…’I am grateful for this, but certainly not grateful for that.’ But, perhaps that isn’t how gratitude works. Being ungrateful may not be the response warranted by Judaism when something doesn’t go one’s way.
Gratitude, according to Jewish prayer, doesn’t get modified based on the time of year or day. We don’t add to it and we don’t take away from it. There were certainly many times in Jewish history when the prayer for gratitude could have been modified, or at least said less often. But it remained resilient in its spot at the apex of the amidah.
This Thanksgiving, let’s activate the unwavering rituals that we’ve assigned to this day of gratitude, the same rituals that appear each year no matter the context.