Malverne Interfaith Thanksgiving Worship Service
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
The fact that the words hodu la-ado-nai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, “Give thanks to God who is good, God’s loving kindness endures forever,” appear several times in our sacred texts underscores the importance of thanksgiving, and for thanking God for all that we have been given. When we thank God and sing praises of thanksgiving to God, it’s not only for what we as people have, but for the simple fact that God created us and the world we live in, and that we human beings have been deemed worthy enough to be charged with caring for our world.
In Genesis we are told that people were created b’tzelem elo-him, in God’s image. This isn’t a physical resemblance, since we don’t know what God looks like, but a spiritual one. Being created in God’s image means that we are supposed to emulate God; and to be God’s partners in creation and in making the world a better place for all.
How do we do emulate God? By doing the things for others that God does for us. When Adam and Eve realized they were naked, God clothed them. When Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, God visited him. When the Israelites in the wilderness were hungry, God fed them — and in a story about the end of Moses’ life, God personally attended to his burial.
In the Mishna, an expansion, explication and companion to the Torah, we learn, Al shlosha d’varim ha’olam omed: al ha-Torah, v’al ha-avodah, v’al g’milut chassadim. “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness.”
Because this evening’s interfaith Thanksgiving service is the result of six houses of worship coming together, our readings and our hymns come from sacred texts, and there’s a lot of talk about praising and thanking God, about what God wants us to do, and about behaving as God would like us to. We might be correct in assuming that everyone sitting here believes in God or has some sort of relationship with God, but we might be wrong. Don’t look now, but there might be people who consider themselves atheists sitting in the pews.
I came across a Chassidic story where the teacher stated that God created everything for a purpose. One clever student asked, “Why did God create atheists? What purpose do they serve?” The teacher responded, “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of all, the lesson of true compassion.” The atheist isn’t acting because of a religious teaching, and doesn’t believe that God has commanded him to perform these acts, but is acting out of an inner sense of morality. The teacher ended by saying, “when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say, ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead, for the moment, pretend you are an atheist, and imagine that there is no God who can help, and say, ‘I will help you.’”
We have a moral imperative to care for others, and it doesn’t matter if we do it because of our faith tradition, because God told us to, or because we feel inside ourselves that it’s the right thing to do. My parents modeled this by their involvement with our synagogue when I was growing up, and my husband and I have done our best to model these values for our children.
In Judaism there is a concept called tikkun olam, which is translated as “repairing the world.” It has its origins in Kabbalah, the major strain of Jewish mystical tradition, but in modern Jewish communities it means standing up and saying, “I will help.” That help takes many forms; raising money; donating money, food and other items; helping to rebuild homes; volunteering our time, the list could go on.
Each of us has the capacity to help someone else, and Maimonides, one of our greatest rabbis, taught that even one who is getting his sustenance from the communal charity pot is obligated to give to someone less fortunate than he. Every time we act in this manner, we help to repair the world and make it a better place.
This past week, Dave Feldman, president of the Malverne Jewish Center, took me to the Rina Shkolnik Kosher Food Pantry in Woodmere. While I was looking at the shelves of donated items, I noticed a plethora of pasta, rice and canned vegetables; things that go on sale often and are easy to toss into our cart. The old cliché is that “beggars can’t be choosers,” but it’s time to eliminate that phrase from our vocabulary. I might be a little annoyed if I give a gas card to someone who has no money for gas, and he turns his nose up at the brand, but when it comes to nourishing our bodies and our families, we’re being disrespectful if we only donate what’s on sale, especially if we wouldn’t eat it ourselves. For me, that would be any canned vegetable except for Green Giant corn.
Here’s where we get into the discussion about the spirit versus the letter of the law. God expects us to take care of others, and we get credit for doing so. I call it getting mitzvah points. I get mitzvah points for bringing in food, but I might get more points for bringing in all-natural peanut butter, Heinz Ketchup and Hellman’s mayonnaise instead of store brands. In Judaism we call this hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah, a commandment. You have it here as well, in this beautiful church with wonderful acoustics. When we make our houses of worship beautiful, when we adorn our holy objects, when we wear our better clothes to come to worship, we are practicing hiddur mitzvah, making something holy even more beautiful, and we get extra points for doing so.
At the food pantry we asked about specific needs and they suggested that we donate the same things that we would buy for ourselves, as well as items that would help make the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah special. The woman who runs the pantry read a text message from a recipient who said, “without your help, we would be eating chicken for Thanksgiving.”
When we donate to a food pantry — and when we add to the offering plate this evening — we engage in what Maimonides called the highest level of charity — anonymous. The giver doesn’t know who the ultimate recipient is, and the recipient doesn’t know who the giver is. We don’t get the thank you notes personally, but I like to imagine a tired mother coming into the pantry and seeing a quart of oil to fry her latkes, a brand of coffee that’s more than she can normally afford, or a box of microwave popcorn so she can treat her kids.
Thanksgiving has become the official kick-off to the upcoming holiday season, as well as a day for families and friends to be together. It’s the busiest travel weekend of the year, which is one reason I’m thankful that the Village of Malverne has this service on the Sunday before, not the day before, Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving has special significance. My birthday is November 27, and the year I was born, it fell on Thanksgiving Day. I’ve often said, “that’s the first year my parents had a real turkey for Thanksgiving.” I know they were thankful for a healthy baby girl, my grandparents were thrilled, and I was considerate enough to be born in the morning, so my mother could enjoy a turkey dinner at the hospital.
The idea of giving thanks to God for a bountiful harvest, for a safe journey, for overcoming adversity is as old as time. Even with all of our amazing technological advances, we haven’t figured out how to control the weather, which means there’s no guarantee that what’s planted in the spring and harvested in the fall will be sufficient. There’s a randomness to life that impacts the outcome, and we need to be able to live with that randomness.
Not only do we live in a random world, we live in very troubling times, and with a heightened level of anxiety in our daily lives. Some of us turn to prayer at times like these, others question how God could allow this evil to exist, and many of us struggle with a combination of the two. I have no doubt about the power of prayer. Studies have shown that when people who are ill are prayed for, even if they don’t know it, they have better outcomes. I know there are other studies that have refuted this, but I’m a rabbi, not a scientist.
The Dalai Lama, in an interview following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris said, “Don’t pray for Paris — work for peace.” He continued, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical … So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments. Furthermore, the problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities. We are one people.”
We’re gathered here today to give thanks for what we have, and to ask for God’s blessing now and in the future. We are here to reflect and to pray and to sing together. It is up to us to take the messages of peace, hope and thanksgiving back to our respective communities, to acknowledge that everyone has the right to food and shelter, a living wage and basic human dignity. Prayer and action go hand in hand, and we can all go a long way towards creating peace and making the world a better place for all.
This Thanksgiving and beyond, oseh shalom bimrova, hu ya-aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol yoshvei teiveil, v’imru amein. May God who creates peace on high, spread peace over us, and over all who live in the world, and let us say, Amen.
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
Malverne Jewish Center