Giving Thanks to Our Heros on Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

With the advent of Thanksgiving we reflect on the narrative of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. What was the nature of the meal shared by Native Americans and the Pilgrims?Even if it did not happen as we “remember it” how do we make meaning of a yearly ritual of giving thanks? We celebrate this day with its cornucopia of fall harvest in honor of those who came before us.  What about the Native Americans?

Charles Alexander Eastman, a Native American physician, writer, national lecturer, and reformer, once said, “It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. . . . Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving. . . . The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.”  We have a tremendous amount to learn from the Native Americans.

This idea of giving is resonant with the idea of Shmita. According to the Torah this year we are supposed to let the land in Israel lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Under Jewish Law any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker-ownerless and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption and disposal of Shmita produce. All native debts were to be remitted. The Midrash describes those who manage to keep shmita properly as “angels of God, mighty warriors doing God’s will, listening to God’s words”. (Vayikra Rabba 1:1) It is normal for a person to do a mitzvah– commandment for one moment, for one day, one week, one month, and even for 49 days. Could it be for the rest of the year? Yet, the owner sees his field empty, abandons his vineyard and pays taxes and is silent.

Too much blood has been spilled in the name of land conflict. What can we learn about the warrior who fights from within? Just as we learn from Eastman we learn in Perkey Avot, “Who is strong? He who conquers his inclination” ( Avot 4:1). May this Thanksgiving during this year of Shmita give us pause to rethink our connection to the land and each other. The giving person is the true hero.


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