I just posted about the Halachic propriety of Thanksgiving, but perhaps a Hashkafic take is in order as well.
I’ve been learning Shemoneh Esrei with my Sixth Graders, and just the other day we got to the final three Berachot, Hoda’ah, giving thanks. On the surface, this part of Shemoneh Esrei should be easily understandable. We praise, we ask, we thank – just the way we would if we wanted something from our parent, spouse, or friend. The problem is that – and this is something that many have observed before us – there is considerably less “thanking” going on in this part of Shemoneh Esrei than there is “praising” or “asking” in the earlier parts. Clearly Modim counts, but what about Ritzei and Sim Shalom? Sim Shalom seems like it should go in the middle part of Shemoneh Esrei, with the other Bakashot, requests. Maybe right between Et Tzemach Dovid Avdicha and Shema Koleinu. Isn’t Sim Shalom the final step of the Geulah process? Or should it come before Teka B’Shofar, as the first step in the Geulah process?
I digress. In any event, the final part of Shemoneh Esrei doesn’t seem to contain very many hoda’ot. And what’s more, we couldn’t thank Hashem for most of what we asked for in the middle part of Shemoneh Esrei even if we wanted to, because many of those requests have not yet been fulfilled! Most of the answers I have seen to these questions are not very satisfying. But just the other day, standing in front of my Sixth Graders and hoping desperately for an epiphany, I got one. (I was told once by a mentor and veteran teacher that there is a certain kind of Siyata Dishmaya (Heavenly assistance) that comes to a teacher when he has invested all reasonable effort into solving a problem, come up empty, and now needs something to say to his students. I think that was what happened to me at that moment.)
Rav Shimon Schwab helped. We use Rav Schwab on Prayer a lot in the classroom. He points out that if Shemoneh Esrei corresponds to the daily Tomid sheep offering, this final part of Shemoneh Esrei corresponds to the מנחה, its vegetarian side-dish – flour, oil, wine, and water. Rav Schwab points out that there is a critical difference between a מנחה and a מתנה. A מתנה (think מתנות לאביונים) is given because the recipient is truly in need and is personally enriched by his receiving it. A מנחה, on the other hand – like a bottle of wine brought by a Shabbat guest – is given not out of need but out of the giver’s desire to foster or strengthen a relationship with the recipient.
If this part of Shemoneh Esrei corresponds with מנחה, the part of the Korban Tomid given not out of obligation or true need but in order to further our relationship with Hashem, that may give us an insight into this Hoda’ah part of Shemoneh Esrei. Everyone searches high and low to find some reference to thanks here, some actual instance of thanking – but they are searching for the wrong thing. Like the מנחה to which it corresponds, Hoda’ah is not a catalog of Thank You’s, but an expression of our desire to engender and improve our relationship with Hashem. It is a gift given not out of duty but out of love. Rather than say Thank You, we show our thanks by sticking around a little longer, fostering a relationship, talking about what is on Hashem’s mind, so to speak. As anyone with kids knows, the best Thank You is not the one muttered quickly while the recipient is bolting to the door, it’s the one in which the recipient shows his or her thanks by sticking around for another minute, asking how you are doing, brings up issues of concern to you. That’s מנחה. And that’s Hoda’ah. You’ve just heard me pour out my litany of requests, Hashem. But how about we discuss some things that are of particular interest to you? How about we work on this relationship, too, not just use You as a vending machine?
[Perhaps that is why יעלה ויבא is in this final part of Shemoneh Esrei. Holidays, too, are about the nurturing of a relationship that comes from the time taken to nurture it as we escape from our daily routine. The “extra” day of Shemini Atzeret in particular is associated with the line קשה עלי פרידתכם – it is so hard for me to say Goodbye – but really all of the Holidays contain this sentiment, one that pertains particularly well to this final Hoda’ah part of Shemoneh Esrei in which we linger a bit longer rather than bolt out the door.]
We are about to enter Thanksgiving, a day of Hoda’ah, but we should remember that Hoda’ah means more than saying Thank You as a token gesture, the way we were taught to do automatically after we receive things. That lesson in gratitude we were taught to do viscerally as kids should lead to the development of an attitude of gratitude, and one that recognizes that the best form of Hoda’ah is the one that is shown, not said; that is a reflection of the מנחה to which Hoda’ah corresponds.