(RNS) — The Puritans who prayed to God more than 400 years ago on Massachusetts’ shore cannot take sole credit for inventing the holiday we now call Thanksgiving. They share the idea of the Jewish sage Moses Maimonides.
In historian Nick Bunker’s 2010 book, “Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World,” he explains that as a separatist, William Bradford “did not care for prefabricated liturgy read from a book.” So when the Pilgrims landed in November 1620, Bradford consulted the commentary by Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622) that he had brought with him, “Annotations on the Five Books of Moses,” which included the Psalms.
Ainsworth was a Christian Hebraist and was familiar with the works of the classical rabbis as well as the Maimonides. Ainsworth quoted the sage’s Mishneh Torah, based on a part of the Talmud called Berachot, or “Blessings”: “Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Four must offer thanks to God with a thanks-offering and a special blessing. They are: Seafarers and those who walk in desert; one who is ill and recovers and one who is incarcerated and goes out .”
The importance of a seafarer giving thanks in this text is attributed to Psalm 107, which tells in verses 23-31 of the difficulties of a sea journey and the thankfulness that ensues when the travelers are safe.
Ainsworth quoted from Maimonides, saying, “And the manner of confessing and blessing is thus; He standeth among them and blesseth the Lord, the King eternal, that bounteously rewardeth good things unto sinners, etc.” According to Bunker, this Jewish prayer of thanksgiving became the “public confession of the goodness and majesty of God, exactly the kind that the Pilgrims performed at Provincetown.”
The formal festive observance that we imitate on Thanksgiving was not established by the Puritans till 1621, a year after they landed, but the more crucial Thanksgiving, the heartfelt one, might be the spontaneous public declaration of thanks by the seafarers who arrived safely. Today, Jews continue this tradition by blessing the synagogue whenever they are in danger.
This Thanksgiving, we might not feel that our dangerous journey is over. The global pandemic that began more than 20 months ago still shows no sign of ending its impact, long after vaccines have become available. As we gather with family or for a Friendsgiving, we may feel beleaguered by COVID-19’s unyielding grip on our lives, not to mention its related inflation and supply chain difficulties. Meanwhile, the just-ended COP26 conference reminded us that climate change is looming, and our democracy faces threats from voter suppression and an increasingly entitled right wing in this country.
When there is so much that we are not grateful for, we can look to Jewish wisdom, just as Bradford did.
Humans may not be able to see the bigger picture. Or, to paraphrase Taanit8b Rabbi Yitzhak, “A blessing can only be found in an object that is hidden away from the eye.”
In other words, it is difficult to always know what is a blessing or a curse. We don’t know how we will respond to tragedy. It is not always possible to see the positive opportunities that arise from a negative situation.
Melissa Glaser, in her book “Healing a Community,” about her work in Newtown, Connecticut, in the aftermath of the school shooting there in December 2012, defined the concept of post- traumatic growth as “the belief that you can also achieve personal growth, encounter new opportunities, develop closer relationships, gain a stronger appreciation for life, and deepen your spiritual core.”
When we consider the devastation caused by the pandemic, we also count the unneeded deaths and the countless economic as well as social consequences. Not least, however, is the damage it has done to the nation’s mental well-being, especially for children and adolescents who are suffering from severe social isolation. Michele Nealon , a psychologist, wrote last month that the pandemic had “accelerated positive momentum within our communities to raise awareness and increased access to crucial support services for those who are affected.”
Nealon goes on to say that the scourge of COVID-19 has reduced the stigmatization of mental illness and woke many up to the racial disparity in mental health services. Long-term improvements may be possible due to the pandemic’s larger effects.
I’m not suggesting that we simply match positive outcomes for all difficulties at this time. It is important to recognize that, while the destruction caused by the pandemic can’t be undone and shouldn’t be excused; there are positive outcomes that could be gleaned from these difficulties. We are all affected by this tragedy, but we can all find ways to be thankful and acknowledge that we have the potential to grow.
A recent work, “On Consolation “, by Michael Ignatieff says that the Psalms help us to understand despair. It is this knowledge that allows us to fight to live in hope.
This is a lesson that the Puritans would approve for all Americans, now and in the future.
(Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy” and author of the novel “Questioning Return.” She is grateful to Rabbi Daniel Yolkut and his 2017 source sheet “Psalm for Thanksgiving Day” for the information about Nick Bunker’s book in this op-ed. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Religion News Service.
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