Rabbi Menachem Creditor
in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg z"l, who died in an attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai on Thanksgiving 2008
The experience of Thanksgiving resonates with so much of Jewish tradition. Family, feast, gratitude, and harvest are part of many Jewish holidays, and some scholars believe that Thanksgiving is, at least in part, based on the holiday of Sukkot. There are even those who offer special Tefilot/Prayers for Thanksgiving. None of these necessarily fit our theologies, our American identities, our understandings of history - but they do point to an attempt to connect Judaism with an American identity.
Consider this one by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:
"In the days of the pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them, who fed them turkey and corn and other delights. Thus You saved them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You. (from A Thanksgiving Seder; see also a A Thanksgiving Seder for Small Children.)"
Reb Zalman's formula is based on the traditional "Al HaNissim/Upon the Miracles" recited for Channukah and Purim (and, more recently, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut/Israel's Independence Day). It paints a peaceful portrait of the Puritans as well as a picture of God as gentle, guiding Presence.
But the history of Thanksgiving, like most things (including any image of God), is more complicated than any simple narrative can express. For instance, contrary to popular perception, it was not until 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln fixed the last Thursday of each November as a "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." (Click here for an article on the rabbinic battle that ignited in 1868 when the governor of Pennsylvania declared that Thanksgiving should be celebrated as a Christian holiday.)
On Thursday, when we share Thanksgiving with family and friends, we might take a moment and offer thanks for the very freedom to consider these thoughts, for the right to practice our Judaism openly and with pride, for the gift of our precious communities and all they represent in our lives.
We have a precious gift as Jewish Americans: the right to be both Jewish and free. This might not have been the Pilgrim's design, but it is their legacy. Just as this moment in American history represents a dream-in-process, so to do we each have important work ahead as members of a Jewish community and as citizens. What a blessing! Ours is a moment worthy of gratitude and rededication.
Perhaps, this Thanksgiving, we'll choose a traditional Jewish way of offering gratitude. Perhaps we'll create something new. But however we may express our souls, may this Thanksgiving be an experience of nurtured gratitude for our country and all its inhabitants.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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