(This article was first published in Kodesh Moment, Fall 2017)
On October 3rd, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving to take place on the coming November 26th. According to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government.” At that time the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, under the leadership of Gershom Mendes Seixas (pronounced SAY-shes), developed a special service “agreeable to the Proclamation of the President of the United States of America” which included selected Psalms for the occasion, a discourse from Reverend Seixas (Rabbis were referred to as Reverends in the early history of this country) and a prayer for the government.
In Rev. Seixas’ speech he spoke about the necessity of gratitude for all the blessings in life that we receive from “the fountain of all good”. Quoting freely from Psalms and the Prophets, he attunes his audience to the great bounty of goodness that surrounds them. Invoking the daily prayers, he asks his listeners to meditate upon the kindness that is visited upon them each day, “evening, morning and noon”. He calls specific attention to the blessing of living in a country governed by a constitution that guaranteed protections for all of its citizens and would, to quote a phrase used by both Rev. Seixas and President Washington, “give to bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance”.
The bulk of Seixas’ remarks, however, are about the duties engendered by a feeling of thanks. He discusses obligations to God, ourselves and our community. Regarding the first, he expresses our duty to teach about God’s attributes such as kindness, care for the vulnerable and truth. In our gratitude to the Author of existence, we must feel renewed in our own endeavors to heed its imperatives to “do justice, execute judgment and walk humbly before the Lord”. Meanwhile, each individual citizen fulfills an obligation towards him or herself when together we “unite with cheerfulness and uprightness, upon all occasions that may occur in the political as well as in the moral world, to promote that which has a tendency to the public good”. Lastly, he asks the Jewish community to consider its unique obligations to itself which he explains is “to enter into self-examination; to relinquish your prejudices against each other; to subdue your passions; to live, as Jews ought to do, in brotherhood and amity; “to seek peace and pursue it”.
Though 228 years ago, the words spoken in the country’s oldest Jewish congregation still ring true. Thanksgiving offers us a chance to feel more deeply the blessings we have each day. Accordingly, it reminds us of our most urgent obligations to imitate the Divine characteristics of loving-kindness, faithfulness to the well-being of others, and justice. It is a further reminder to support the best of what our country stands for and finally to see our own Jewish community as a vital component in providing an example of our highest ideals.
(The entirety of Rev. Seixas’ remarks can be found at this link: http://shearithisrael.org/thanksgiving)