Religion & Beliefs

Thanksgiving Psalm

Given the persistence of wars around the globe and the bewildering, destructive, unravelling of our economy, we’re clearly living in an age of anxiety. And at the same time, we share a newly ignited sense of awe. Never would I, … Read More

By / November 26, 2008

Given the persistence of wars around the globe and the bewildering, destructive, unravelling of our economy, we’re clearly living in an age of anxiety. And at the same time, we share a newly ignited sense of awe. Never would I, for one, have imagined that only thirty-five years after we sang "We Shall Overcome" at the Washington Mall and that Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream with the thousands of us there that day, that America would overwhelmingly choose a black President. Today, a photo of the young, thoughtful President-elect glowed from the newspaper’s front page, arguably the most intelligent, emotionally mature, menschlik man to occupy the White House in way too long a time.

Into the midst of our stormy fusion of anxiety and elation, worry and joy, the harvest festival of Thanksgiving arrives. It seems fitting that the recently much-referenced Abraham Lincoln is the one who formalized this national expression of gratitude. Exactly a century before the March on Washington, Lincoln declared that, despite the anguish of the still-raging Civil War, abundant blessings were nevertheless evident in the land; we should acknowledge them, said Lincoln, express our gratitude for them, remembering at the very same time the "widows, orphans, mourners and sufferers" of the war. As we celebrate the richness of our harvest, we should also pray, he said, that our nation’s wounds be healed.

Coming in the midst of a tumult of feeling, this Thanksgiving, too, seems a profoundly apt time to acknowledge the emotional complexity that Lincoln articulated with such unadorned eloquence 145 years ago. But we need words, we need a shared language, that enables us to do so, a way in that also has depth, resonance, history.  

I believe we can find those words within the too often neglected psalms of our own liturgy.

Why the psalms? Because the psalms offer a language for giving voice to the longings within us – whether for love, faith, wholeness, peace, understanding, justice or joy – and for our victories and our failures. They give us a way to express the sheer intensity of life itself, promising a world of ultimate justice and stability upon which, despite the vagaries of life, we can rely. And, if we pay careful attention, a psalm that at first glance psalm seems so unassuming can articulate the whole at once troubling and exhilarating terrain of this particular moment.

Psalm 126, traditionally recited as a prelude to the "Blessing after Meals" on the Sabbath and on festivals, seems to me a truly powerful one to recite, as well, before our Thanksgiving meal this year. It’s a psalm that evokes the gamut of emotion: remembrance of loss and the joy of return; the struggle to survive, but also the sheer plenitude and simplicity of life at its best. It conjures up the hard realities and possible sorrows of labor, as we work hard so that our land will flourish — but also the ecstasy of reward, when a generous earth offers us streams even in the desert, and fields richly golden and alive with the glory of ripened grain. Above all, Psalm 126 suggests that the spiritual and earthly are not separate realms; that every crust of bread is a miracle, most of all those crusts of bread which have been hard won. It seems to me that’s a message we are needing to hear again right now.

Set in the new context of American Thanksgiving, moreover, Psalm 126 reverberates with new meanings. "Zion" now can be experienced as an emblem of all of our ideals, a way of being or state of mind in which we are spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally most at home – a letting go of the "low dishonest decade" we’ve just been through, dominated by "mismanagement and grief," to borrow the words of W.H. Auden. To be out of exile, to be home, in this context now suggests a renewed sense of faith in the future – a sense of great gratitude, and at the same time an expression of hope. Notice, too, that the sorrow that the psalm describes is far from existential despair: it is not a paralyzed sorrow, preventing any positive action. For even as there is sorrow, there is also sowing – a sense of future promise.

Though in general Jews are not a praying people, reciting Psalm 126 together this year as we begin our Thanksgiving meal can remind us again of the miracle of everyday life, of how the everyday is infused with the holy, and the most mundane with the sacred. Most of all, it can remind us of the never-to-be-taken-for-granted blessedness of laughter filling our mouths, and tongues singing with joy. It reminds us that, though times may be difficult, our labors will bear fruit again.   Psalm 126

A song of ascent.

When Adonai restored Zion, we were like dreamers.

Laughter filled our mouths and our tongues sang with joy.

Then the nations of the world said, "Adonai has done great things for them!"

Adonai did so great things for us-and we were glad. O Adonai, restore our well-being now, like streams like that flow in the Negev.

So those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy –

And those who walk along weeping, bearing a bag of seeds,

Will surely come home singing with joy, bearing sheaves.


Blessed be your basket and your kneading bowl (Deut 28:5).


All images by artist Barbara Nesin