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Giving Thanks


Have you ever read President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation from October 3, 1863?

It is quite beautiful and worth the 2-minute read.

Here is the transcript:

By the President of the United States A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and even soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. 

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. 

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. 

I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. 

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth. Abraham Lincoln By the President: William H. Seward.  Secretary of State.

Interestingly, this week’s parasha has a strong connection to Thanksgiving.

The Torah tells us that when Leah gave birth to her fourth son, Yehudah, she said, “This time I will give thanks to G-d,” (Bereishis 29:35). The Medrash says that Leah “acquired for herself” the attribute of gratitude, and that her descendants continued to emulate her attribute of thanksgiving.

Who were these descendants who carried on the practice of expressing gratitude (in Hebrew- hakarat hatov)? The Medrash says that first there was Yehudah, who said, “She was more righteous than I” (Bereishis 38:26) and then there was David who said “Offer Praise to the L-rd, for He is Good,” (Tehillim 107:1).

(Yehudah’s remark related to the incident with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar was suspected of becoming pregnant improperly from someone outside the family, while in truth, it was Yehudah who had relations with her (he didn’t recognize her because she was disguised). Until the Torah decreed that only a dead husband’s brother could perform levirate marriage, a father could as well, therefore, her relationship with Yehudah was kosher. When they were about to put her to death, Tamar presented the signet and cane which Yehudah had given to her as a deposit, he acknowledged that they were his, admitting that he was the one who impregnated her.)

The fact that the Medrash cites King David as a classic example of offering thanks, appreciation to G-d, and practicing hakarat hatov is easily understood. However, Yehudah’s announcement of his own guilt does not seem to be directly related to the attribute of offering thanksgiving.

The interpretation of the Medrash might be based on an insight from Rav Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980). Rav Hutner points out that the Hebrew word for “admitting” and the Hebrew word for “giving thanks” are one and the same — Hoda’ah. In Hebrew, we say, “I am Modeh that I owe you” (I admit) and we also say, “Modeh Ani lefanecha” (I give thanks before You).

There is a blessing in the Shmoneh Esrei called the Blessing of thanksgiving. The blessing begins with the words “Modim anachnu lach.” Rav Hutner says that the literal translation of these words is not “we thank You”; rather the literal translation is “we admit to You”.

Rav Hutner explains that the reason why these two words are identical in Hebrew is because a person’s ability to give thanks is based on his ability to admit that he is incomplete. If a person gives thanks to someone, it indicates that he is incomplete — he needed the favors and kindness of someone else. This is why it is sometimes so difficult for us to say “thank you” — because it is so difficult for us to admit that we were in need. The greater the gifts that we receive from someone, the more difficult it is to say “thank you”, because a greater gift indicates our greater need.

It is sometimes very difficult to give thanks to parents because we need them so much. They have given us so much. It is sometimes very difficult to thank our spouses because we know that we are incomplete without them.

The word for thanks is the same as the word for admission, because in order to say thank you a person must have the ability to admit that he is less than perfect.

That being the case, the Medrash is very profound. The Medrash marshals two examples of hakarat hatov that stem from the very same source. Yehudah was big enough and honest enough to say “I made a mistake”. The ability of a person to admit his fallibility enables the person to show the other type of hakarat hatov, as typified by the verse brought from King David — “Offer praises to G-d, for He is Good.”