Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reflections on Thanksgivikah

Is it appropriate for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving? And if so, why not other “American” holidays like Halloween or Christmas? And while we're on the subject: is the tie-in between Chanukah and Thanksgiving just a once-in-78,000-year calendrical coincidence or is there something more to it?

Let's answer the question with a question. Did you ever stop to think about why Jews are called “Jews”? Why aren’t we called Israelites like in olden days? 

After the reign of Solomon, the Tribes of Israel began to quarrel among themselves, until in short order two Israelite kingdoms were established. The Northern Kingdom was comprised of ten of the original twelve Tribes. The Southern Kingdom was really the Tribes of Benjamin and Judah (not counting Levites and Kohanim), comprising the region surrounding Jerusalem and Judea. 

The Northern Kingdom, cut off from the Holy Temple, quickly descended into apostasy and idolatry, while the Southern Kingdom hung on to the spiritual ideals of King David, at least for a while longer than the North. 

The Assyrians conquered the corrupted Northern Kingdom, and scattered its inhabitants to the four winds. These are the fabled “Ten Lost Tribes” whom we are told will be reunited with the Jewish world at the time of the ultimate redemption (may it come speedily in our days.)  In fact, this process has already begun: witness the return to Israel of the scattered remnants of Jews from the Maghreb, from Arabia, and from Persia; the Falashmura from Ethiopia (who claim their lineage from the Tribe of Dan) and the Bnei Menashe from the Indian subcontinent.

But I digress. Ahem. When the sins of the Southern Kingdom finally filled the 'poisoned cup', Gcd unleashed the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and destroy the Holy Temple. After the usual rape, pillage and plunder, they exiled the Judeans (majority) and Benjaminites (minority), and so the Babylonian exiles were lumped together as 'Judeans' or simply 'Jews' in English. 

The term "Jew" ties us, historically and geographically to Judea, i.e. the Land of Israel.

Here's the last piece of the puzzle. Who was the original Yehuda? You will recall that in Parashat Vayetze, Leah names her fourth son Yehuda in gratitude. The very name Yehuda means “thanks to Gcd.”

In other words, we are called ‘Jews’ because giving thanks to the A-lmighty is our function in the world.  The French are famous for their wine; the Italians for making love and singing opera. But Jews? Our primary purpose is to give praise to Hashem. 

We thank Gcd when we wake up; we thank Gcd when we lie down. We thank Gcd before we put a morsel of food in our mouths; we thank Gcd when we get up from the table. We thank Gcd for the wonders of nature. We thank Gcd for the holiest of things, such as studying Torah, and for the most mundane of things, such as using the toilet. As Jews, we are in a constant state of blessing and praise because that is our defining characteristic.

Along comes Thanksgiving, a holiday intended to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledge the manifest blessings bestowed by the Almighty as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow 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.”

So I'm thinking that we shouldn't squander an opportunity to give thanks to 'our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens'; indeed, we'd be abandoning our post if we did.

There is a second, more philosophical reason for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving: it's true that many cultures have some kind of harvest celebration, a day to give thanks for food enough to survive winter. But the American Thanksgiving speaks also to higher ideals: our noble experiment in self-governance; to the preservation of personal liberty; and to the inalienable rights of Man that can be usurped by no despot. Those principles which our Founding Fathers bequeathed to the world are rooted in Torah, and therefore in holiness, and are worthy of celebration. So in that sense I am an unapologetic American Exceptionalist.

And as for the connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving? Well, open a siddur (prayerbook). Where is our primary Chanukah prayer, Al HaNissim? Tucked into the Thanksgiving Blessing we say three times a day, every day of our lives; and in the Blessing of Thanks after a Meal. 

Maybe the confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, coming as it does in an age where we are witness to the Ultimate Redemption of Israel, as foretold by the Prophets of Israel, unfolding before our very eyes; maybe the special message for our times is to double up on gratitude. We live in very stressed-out times; perhaps we need to step back, take a deep breath, and focus on what we have, not on what we lack.

Thanksgivikah provides a singular opportunity to reflect on our spiritual path, to give thanks to the A-lmighty, and to resolve to improve - to rededicate - our lives. 

Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah Same'ach. 

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