Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I'm interested in knowing how we can thank God in a manner acceptable to him. I am Muslim and looked to the Quran about it. There are innumerable places in the Quran where God wants us to thank him for all his blessings, but I could not figure out how it should be done. How is this subject dealt with in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments)?
-- R., Hewlett, via email
Sending thanks to God is a daunting task, both because we have so much for which we must give thanks and also because addressing the envelope is a bit of a problem.
The first idea mankind developed for expressing thanks to God was by offering sacrifices. Some sacrifices were agricultural, and some were animals that were slaughtered and burned on an altar. This idea predated the arrival of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is still a fundamental ritual practice of Hinduism and other Eastern religions.
The very first act of Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve, was to bring sacrifices. The Book of Leviticus is mostly a detailed account of how to bring sacrifices to God in the proper manner. Sacrifices were brought to local temples and then, after 621 BCE (Before the Common Era), they were only brought to the main temple in Jerusalem when King Josiah closed down the local ones.
The priests, who were a hereditary elite caste in Judaism, administered the sacrifices, and they consumed the meat and grain and fruits as their sustenance and payment for their priestly duties.
When the temple was destroyed for the last time in the year 70 CE (Common Era), sacrifices were no longer possible and Judaism became a nonsacrificial religion in which the rabbis, the new leaders of Judaism, replaced every sacrifice with a prayer.
This is the idea that entered Christianity and Islam, except that Christianity did elevate Jesus' death to the status of an atoning sacrifice for all Christians at all times. So the first way to give thanks to God is to pray with sincerity and gratitude in a regular manner.
Some prayers of gratitude to God are, of course, deeply personal. I just said a prayer with a man who'd survived a life-threatening illness and directed him to say, "You are blessed, O Lord my God, for showing me such goodness." I love that prayer and the occasions that provoke it.
Other personal prayers of thanks to God are more general but also deeply moving. I often say the prayer, "You are blessed, O Lord my God, for keeping us alive and sustaining us and bringing us to this joyous moment." Being kept alive, being sustained in body and soul, and being brought to moments of joy and gladness seem to me to encapsulate the fundamental elements of all true thanksgiving to God.
Another way to give thanks to God is to give charity (called zakat in your Muslim faith). Charity, called tzedakah in Judaism, is a way of giving back to those in need some of the abundance that God has shared with us.
Being personally thankful through prayer is a good first step in thanking God, but it seems to me to lack the concern for others that brings us out of our own self-regarding lives and into the broken world of need. In the Bible, this charitable thanksgiving had many forms, but my favorite was the gleaning. It required farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor could come into the fields and glean the leftover grain. For many years, I took gleaners into the fields near our home, and we gave the produce to soup kitchens that were always in need of fresh produce to augment their meals. Before entering our synagogue for Yom Kippur, congregants are putting bags of canned goods that they've "gleaned" from their pantries into bins for the Mercy Inn, a soup kitchen we support in Wyandanch.
Before we ask God to forgive and bless us, we must share our blessings with others as an act of thankfulness to God. I encourage you to find a proper and well-run charity and give it a donation as your act of thankfulness to God.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi mystic from your tradition, wrote, "Giving thanks for abundance is sweeter than the abundance itself." And Meister Eckhart, the German medieval mystic, taught, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is 'thank you,' it will be enough."