Thanksgiving is a special American holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. It commemorates the first Pilgrim corn harvest in 1621, the year after the Mayflower arrived in North America.
I wonder how many Americans are really familiar with the history of Thanksgiving. In effect, every single American owes thanks to a Native North American by the name of Squanto.
Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London, eventually managed to return to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto greeted the arriving Pilgrims, many of whom were devastated by malnutrition and illness, and taught them - from the goodness of his heart - how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribeled by Chief Metacomet, also known as King Philip, who did much in helping the strangers from England adapt to North American life.
The increasing numbers of Pilgrims responded to the kindness of the Native Americans by forcibly trying to convert them to Christianity. Chief Metacomet bitterly objected to the terrible influence that the new arrivals had on his people, which triggered a bloody war that took the lives of the vast majority of the Wampanoag Indians. Their allies, the Narraganset, were also killed. Those that were not killed in war fled to other tribes. Those who were captured were either exiled or sold into slavery.
Where's the gratitude?
In Judaism, there are two types of commandments - those between man and G-d and those between man and fellow man. The commandments between man and fellow man are very serious, for Hashem will not forgive a human who has done damage to a fellow human until the wrongdoer asks and receives the forgiveness of the victim. Not only that, but as long as a wrongdoer fails to ask forgiveness from the victim, Hashem won't listen to the wrongdoer's prayers, as we learn from the Code of Jewish Law in the laws of Yom Kippur.
Probably the greatest fulfillment of the commandment of loving our fellow human is to express our gratitude for any favor - big or small - that our fellow human does for us. As much as Judaism honors and cherishes gratitude, it utterly loathes ingratitude.
The lowest form of ingrate is the person who returns an act of kindness with an act of evil. King Solomon says, "He who repays a favor with evil, evil shall never depart from his domain" (Proverbs 17:13).
The evangelistic Pilgrims in 17th Century North America were certainly not the first to return the Wampanoag Indians' kindnesses by killing those who refused to forsake the ways of their ancestors and convert.
Consider these two points that the Torah cites:
Point 1: Lot was Abraham's wayward nephew who preferred a life of lust in Sodom to a life of holiness with his uncle in Hevron. Lot was captured when King Amarphel (Nimrod) and his allies defeated the 5 kings of Sodom. Abraham risked his life to go to war for the sole purpose of freeing his nephew; Hashem gave Abraham success and Lot's life was saved.
Point 2: But, when Sodom and Amorra were destroyed, Lot was spared by virtue of his uncle.
We see that not once, but twice, Lot was saved in his uncle Abraham's merit.
Yet, how do Lot's offspring, the nations of Ammon and Moav, react to Abraham's offspring? They hire the wicked soothsayer Bilaam to curse the Israelites, hoping that they'll annihilate them in battle.
The Gemara tells that the grandsons of Haman are learning Torah in Bnai Brak. How can that be? Haman tried to wipe us off the map!
Yes, Judaism will accept the offspring of Esau and Amalek as a righteous convert. There are righteous converts in Israel today whose grandparents were officers in Hitler's SS. But, Judaism will not accept the offspring of Ammon and Moav. We don't want any genes of ingratitude mixing into our people.
A Jew's entire being is gratitude. The word for Jew in Hebrew - Yehudi - means one who thanks. From the moment we rise in the morning to the moment we retire at night, we're thanking Hashem. But, we must also remember to appreciate and express our gratitude for the many favors we receive from others, and particularly our parents and our spouse. When a husband and wife are grateful to each other, their marriage is total bliss.
For a Jew, every single day of the year is Thanksgiving.
It's nice to eat turkey, succotash and pumpkin pie once a year. But is the holiday authentic when it's celebrated on the ashes of the native Americans who helped the newcomers survive, only to be repaid by having their blood spilled? Doesn't anyone do any soul-searching? Shouldn't someone ask forgiveness of and recompense the native Americans? How does anyone in the State Department dare criticize the settlements in our holy Land of Israel, built on our Divine-given inheritance from over 3500 years ago? Our sages teach us that people tend to project their own blemishes on others.
Sorry, but my heart goes out to the Indians. Their tribulations are so remindful of ours - persecuted by invading missionaries, exiled from their land, and discriminated in so many ways. Their lot has not been turkey and cranberry sauce, but a trail of tears. Someone ought to apologize to them. Until they do, their spiritual status resembles that of Ammon and Moav. They have long since perished. The Thanksgiving holiday without true and sincere gratitude is nothing but a turkey holiday, pun intended.
This Thanksgiving (once again, every day for a Jew), let's remember to thank Hashem and to thank our fellow human for all the good they do for us. Thank the mailman for delivering the mail; thank your boss for getting your paycheck on time; thank your wife the hundreds of favors she does all day long, and thank your husband for bringing home the bread. Take nothing for granted. Maybe we can't rectify all of society, but we can sure start by rectifying ourselves. Don't be a turkey - say thank you and be sincere about it. And remember, it's good to thank Hashem anytime and anywhere. Enjoy your turkey!
Here's the cherry on the cake: the word in Hebrew for turkey is hodu, which means, "give thanks!"