Good evening, and welcome to Congregation Shearith Israel! It is a great honor and privilege to be hosting all of you here at our congregation for this first of what we hope will be an annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, rotating in venue from year to year amongst different local houses of faith. I’m also honored to have been asked by my friends and colleagues on the planning committee for this service to present some remarks this evening on our theme of “Diverse in Faith, United in Gratitude”.
For us to think about what it means to be truly grateful, we have to start off with considering what we take for granted in our lives, even on a daily basis. And what better way to focus on that issue by thinking about how we begin our day. When we woke up today, we may have sat up and immediately thought about work, or travel plans for this coming weekend, or getting the house ready for guests, or about school or driving kids to school (though many of us weren’t—I’ve got to admit our kids were a little jealous that they had school today when so many schools are off this whole week!). But when our minds went there, we skipped a step. How many of us processed—even for a few brief moments—how fortunate we are to have woken up at all, to have had a chance to begin this day, another day fresh with our potential to be connected to, and impact, our family, friends, and the world? In the Jewish tradition we find the idea that, when we go to sleep at night, our soul temporarily leaves our body and God watches over our soul overnight until returning it to us safely in the morning before we start another day. This idea is expressed in a personal prayer originating in the Middle Ages that we recite in the morning, before even getting out of bed, which translates to “I thank You, living and enduring God, for Your kindness in restoring my soul. How great is your faithfulness”. Whatever one’s religious tradition or personal theology is, think about the beautiful sentiment this prayer offers us. Every new day is a blessing to be treasured, a moment of renewal, a precious opportunity to live. As we too often are, we’ve recently all been starkly reminded, by events like the destruction of the California wildfire and by shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue and at a bar in Thousand Oaks, among over 300 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018—of the fragility of life. There’s no such thing as a day that should be taken for granted. Every day, we get another chance to live, not just for ourselves, but as God’s agents and partners in this world. Today is a blessed day, just like yesterday was, and we hope tomorrow will be. For this, we can each say, “Thank you, God”, when we rise in the morning. And we can really mean it.
But gratitude is not just personal or individual. It is communal and collective. And it knows no boundaries between faiths. In this vein we also have another prayer in our Jewish liturgy that we recite as part of our congregational prayers on weekday mornings, one that is lifted directly from the Book of Psalms. In Psalm 100, we say:
“A Psalm of praise.
Raise a shout for the Lord, all people on earth.
Worship the Lord in gladness; come into God’s presence with shouts of joy!
Acknowledge that the Lord is God. God fashioned us and we are God’s, God’s people, the flock that God tends.
Enter God’s gates with praise, God’s courts with acclamation. Praise God and bless God’s name!
For the Lord is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal, God’s faithfulness endures for all generations.”
This passage from Psalms is a beautiful universalistic expression of the notion that everyone on earth—whatever our individual background or particular faith tradition—is expected to jubilantly acknowledge that the Lord is God. The Psalmist reminds us that we are blessed to be created in God’s image, fortunate to be a member of God’s flock AND inhabit God’s kingdom, and ought to be appreciative of God’s faithfulness and love. Thus the Psalmist calls us to respond by serving God in that same faithful and loving spirit, with heartfelt passion and joy animating our praise of God. This prayer is yet another testament to the fact that we can conceptualize and worship God in very different ways and yet still be very much in harmony with each other and with God. And when we can all exalt God together—as we are doing this evening—how much more powerful and uplifting it is for our souls, those very souls that God restored to us just this morning when we woke up to begin this special day.
In this evening’s, and this week’s, spirit, let’s each take a private and quiet moment of reflection and think to ourselves about what we’re thankful for—food, shelter, family, friends, health, faith, community, and whatever else each of us may feel like thanking God for tonight. (PAUSE)
I’ll tell you just a few of the things I’m thankful for right now:
--I’m thankful to God for my wife Jennifer, and our children Jonah and Elana, as well as our extended family, and the ways in which we all love and support each other in so many aspects of life.
--I’m thankful to God to be entrusted with the sacred responsibility of leading this exciting congregation into its future, and equally thankful to be able to partner in this venture with such amazing clergy, staff, lay leaders and congregants.
--I’m thankful to God for this wonderful gathering this evening, for the fellowship that our planning committee from different congregations and institutions has shared over these last few months as we’ve prepared, and for the presence of everyone in the room tonight.
--and I’m thankful to God for the promise that our being together tonight holds for our whole Dallas community. We are diverse, but we are also one. We can make an impact on each other, learn about and from each other, pray with each other, and help those in need together, as we’re doing for NTFB this evening. Tonight can’t just be for the purpose of feeling good about ourselves, but also another step in building lasting relationships and bridges for the better.
I’ll close by chanting one more phrase from the Bible, prominently featured in Psalm 136: Hodu La-Adonai Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo. Give thanks to God, for God is good; God’s loving faithfulness endures forever. May we all be blessed to dwell under God’s sukkah, canopy, of peace and protection, today, on Thanksgiving Day, and always. AMEN.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share