By Rabbi Levi Greenberg

A friend confided in me that Thanksgiving this year will be dreadful as he won’t be celebrating with family back east. I hear this sentiment from so many here in town and it’s all over my social media feed. Clearly, eight months of our new reality has not prepared us for the emotional drain of being alone, especially at times when we are accustomed to being with those we love most.

But I have yet to hear someone suggest canceling Thanksgiving altogether. Regardless of the restrictions on celebrating with family and friends, the national holiday will be observed as always, and I believe there is something to be learned from this that can help us going forward.

Rabbi Levi Greenberg

Thanksgiving was first observed as a celebration to give thanks to G-d for new-found freedom and a good harvest. While the pilgrims originally celebrated out of genuine feelings of gratitude, over time it became a scheduled national holiday, drifting away — for many — from its original intent, which some may argue has stripped it of its meaningfulness. But here is a different angle to consider.

The Stillerman family owned a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1950s and their 9-year-old son Nochum would make periodic deliveries to the home of Mrs. Chana Schneerson, the mother of the world-renowned leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe.

Over time he became more comfortable with his high-profile customer and once asked her what was the Rebbe’s favorite prayer. Several weeks later she shared with him that her son’s favorite prayer is 12 Hebrew words recited immediately upon awakening, known as “Modeh Ani.

“I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great,”  it reads in English.

I find this striking since there are so many beautifully poetic prayers in Jewish liturgy, customarily recited in settings more suitable for spiritual inspiration. Yet the Rebbe most appreciated the simple prayer we say while still in bed, even before we have had the chance to properly orient ourselves. 

Although it may seem mechanical, starting the day with an expression of gratitude regardless of the circumstances or how genuine it may feel at the moment is the best way to set us on the right course.

We need to get used to the idea of expressing gratitude even if we don’t really feel it. I was raised hearing stories of family members who recited prayerful liturgy every day while imprisoned in Soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps, when they had every reason not to welcome a new day. But those daily habitual words of gratitude kept them anchored in their belief and trust that the world is not a random jungle and there is meaning and purpose to every circumstance.

Although our current times may feel like a nightmare, and Thanksgiving this year is missing its usual pomp and ceremony, the fact that it’s still on the calendar should inspire us to incorporate certain meaningful practices into our daily schedule, regardless of how we feel about them.

Dedicate time every day for quiet reflection on purpose and meaning and share these moments with your family. Do an act of goodness and kindness every day and seek ways to inspire others to do the same. 

Positive routine behaviors — even mechanical — can shape our reality and the good we do today will become the seeds from which the fruits of tomorrow will grow and brighten the future in ways we can only imagine.

Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.