Posts Tagged 'Thanksgiving'

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.

Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.


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