Chag Hodu Sameach—Happy Thanksgiving

This year the first night of Hanukkah will coincide with the American holiday of Thanksgiving. American Rabbi Benjamin Blech of Aish Torah quips, “It will never again happen in our lifetimes—unless you are somehow still alive 70,000 years from now. The latkes will share their prominent place at the festive meal with the turkey. Small wonder that some have already humorously decided that this year we ought to call the day by a new name—Thanksgivukkah.” It is an interesting coincidence and American rabbis are having a field day drawing many reflective interpretations around this unique calendar event. This year we can enjoy a both a little humor and a little spiritual insight of our Chanukah celebrations. 

On Thanksgiving Day, it is customary in the United States to eat a turkey dinner. The Hebrew word for turkey is “tar'negol hodu,” literally, an “Indian Rooster.” It came by this name because turkeys are indigenous to North America which the first explorers thought was actually part of India. The country of India is called Hodu in Hebrew, most commonly recognized from the opening lines of Megillat Esther (Book of Esther, Purim), when King Achashverosh is depicted as ruling a kingdom that stretched “me’hodu v’ad kush” from India to Ethiopia. This really might be one of life’s weird coincidences, since there is another way to translate tar'negol hodu. Using the other meaning of the word hodu—thanks, a turkey in Hebrew actually means a “rooster of thanks.” The Hebrew word "hodu" is related to the word "hodaya" meaning "the giving of thanks" The Hebrew name for the holiday of thanksgiving is "chag ha-hodaya." The Hebrew word for turkey is tar’negol hodu תרנגול הודו—often shortened to hodu הודו. A common biblical Hebrew term for "Give thanks!" is hodu. We see that phrase often in Tehilim (Psalms), and a related verse in the Siddur (from 1Chron 16:8) which starts the Pesukei D'Zimra (Psalm and Song) section of the morning prayers in the synagogue.

Almost every child is trained by his/her parents to say, “Thank You” when given something. But, when one is constantly receiving, it is easy to let those manners slide. Human beings are constantly receiving, or to put it another way, we are all totally dependent upon the Divine forces of nature (to make bread you need wheat, to get wheat you need rain, etc.). From the first moments of life, we are all takers. And that is okay. That is what was intended. What is not, okay, however, is ingratitude. In all things we need to appreciate the dual aspects of life in which the Creator of the universe has endued within the human being—we are both physical and spiritual beings. We have a unique calling as well, and that is to draw the two dimensions of existence into a unified expression of praise and acknowledgement of God. Although thankfulness is the theme behind both of these holidays, the essential difference between the American day of expressing gratitude to God and the Jewish Festival of Lights is the motivation and emphasis.

As human beings we have two basic needs. One is physical. Because we are flesh and blood we require food to sustain us. Without sustenance we could not live so that is why there is a biblical obligation to bless God at the conclusion of every full meal, defined as one in which we have partaken of bread, the biblical staff of life. “And you shall eat, and you should be satiated, and you shall bless the Lord your God” (Deu 9:7). That is one of two biblically mandated blessings. The other is the blessing over the study of Torah. Food is essential for our bodies but Torah is just as important for the preservation of our souls. Food allows us to live; Torah gives us a reason for living. Food satisfies our physical cravings; Torah responds to our deeper need for purpose and meaning to our existence. We are a duality going back to the story of the creation of Adam who was formed from the dust of the earth and the breath of the divine. We need our bodies to house our souls; we need our souls to validate our presence in the world.

Since Thanksgiving and Chanukah fall on the same day this year, perhaps God is giving us a unique opportunity to reflect on these two essential aspects of Divine favor in a way we might not have in years past. Be well and be filled with the Spirit as well as with dinner this year.

Chag Sameach! Bob

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