William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder" c. 1800
Sermon, Shabbat Vayeitzei 5779 Congregation Beit Simcha
I have always argued that Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday. What else can you call a day when you are obligated to invite over all you relatives, including the ones you don’t get along with, and overeat?
Yes, Thanksgiving is definitely a Jewish holiday.
In fact, Thanksgiving is a Jewishly-tinged holiday for historical reasons as well. The great mythos of the holiday is that it was begun by the Massachusetts Pilgrims, whose very name was an evocation of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of the Torah. These pious English Puritans had sojourned in the tolerant land of Holland before embarking for the New World, and in Leiden in the Netherlands their leaders studied Hebrew with a Sephardic rabbi so that they could read the Old Testament in its original language. When they had their first decent harvest, they chose to create a thanksgiving festival based on the ancient Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, our own gratitude celebration in the Bible. And following the tradition of Sukkot, they naturally observed it outdoors, al fresco, under the divinely created sky so that their prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving could ascend directly to their Creator. And following the tradition of Sukkos, they invited guests—in their cases, the Native Americans who had helped them survive. Food, outdoor eating, guests, thanksgiving prayers: pretty much Sukkot in November, no?
Actually, if you have ever visited Plimouth Plantation or any of the reconstructions of early colonial settlements back east you soon realize they didn’t have any buildings large enough to hold an indoor feast anyway, and they had no choice but to celebrate outdoors, with or without a sukkah over them. Still, the connection between Thanksgiving and Sukkot is evident.
Another festival in this season, which begins just two weeks from Sunday night, is also modeled on Sukkot: the holiday of Chanukah, a gratitude festival that is the same length as Sukkot and is also focused on thanksgiving to God. It’s Sukkot in December. You can easily make the case that the entire late fall and early winter calendar is based on offering gratitude to God and modeled on Sukkot, three months of Tabernacles, or at least of thanksgiving.
Which seems a bit odd, really, in view of how we typically look at the world. The vast majority of the time it seems to me that we complain a great deal more than we give thanks. Kvetching is far more common in this world than kvelling, to put it in Yiddish terms, and many of us aren’t really happy unless we are complaining about someone or something. I don’t just mean we Jews; we have good historical reasons for believing that people are out to get us and the world is going bad all around us, and the events in Pittsburgh three weeks ago testify to the fact that Anti-Semitic violence can occur at any moment anywhere in the world. There are significant reasons for us to feel persecuted, and the recent increase in openly anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric are certainly of great concern.
But in spite of this, we still live in a place and time that is nearly unique in human history for Jews: in general, we are accepted, successful, prominent and respected. I don't mean to diminish the challenges we sometimes face, but frankly things really are not as bad as we like to think.
Look, it is easy to see what is going wrong in our world and in our country today: crazy wildfires in California, mass shootings on a weekly basis, political hyper-partisanship that has turned public debate into a blood sport, our inability to count electoral returns in any kind of efficient way, wild and crazy claims of conspiracies and fraud alleged every few minutes. Turn on the radio or TV or look at your Twitter or Facebook feed and you are treated to a level of kvetching and outright hostility that make it seem as though the world is going terribly wrong in new and creative ways.
And yet, here we are in the midst of an autumn season when we are directed to give thanks publicly and regularly. And the truth is that is a very good thing to do indeed, to reflect not on what we don’t like about our world but about what we actually are grateful for and should like.
We do have many blessings in our lives. We live in a country whose Constitution and its Amendments guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and freedom of non-violent speech. No individual or group, no matter how powerful, can destroy those protections in the long run. Our economic health is sometimes challenged, and our lack of economic equity should be challenged, but the American economy is as robust and resilient as any in human history. In spite of some our most misguided efforts to damage the incredible natural beauty of this continent, America remains a magnificent showplace of God’s handiwork, big and varied and truly beautiful. We remain a place of remarkable innovation in the sciences and technology, a magnet for the best and brightest in the world, creator of new and dynamic ways of doing things and turning those processes into wildly successful industries. We are, as a nation, incredibly creative in the arts, especially the publicly popular ones. We are uniquely good at manufacturing entertainment the world consumes in bulk; some of it is brilliant and deep, some of it shallow and showy, and some of it a little tawdry—yet the technical skill employed, and the continual flow is astounding. We continue to attract the most ambitious people in the world, who aspire to lives of freedom and hard work and who bring entrepreneurial energy and commitment to our nation. We are a complex national melting pot made up of the children and grandchildren and descendants of immigrants, and that has made our national culture diverse and rich. We truly live in a land of plenty, a fertile place that has long cultivated new ideas, new beginnings, new industries, new realities. We have always, as a country, figured out how to do things, how to fix problems, how to make the future brighter.
I’m not exactly sure where the current national taste for anger and resentment originated, and the present acceptance of character assassination began. But I am quite sure that there is a much better way to act, and a much healthier, more productive and more meaningful way to go forward.
There is a great teaching in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 27:12) about gratitude. The rabbis thought so highly of thanksgiving to God that they are quoted saying that “when the Messiah comes all sacrifices will have completed their mission, and all will be discontinued, with one exception: the thanksgiving offering.” That sacrifice will last forever, even after the Messiah! Why? Because even in a perfect world we must remember to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have. And we must find our own ways to make that acknowledgment today, since sacrifices are just an ancestral memory. We must find ways to speak our thanksgiving, to say what we are grateful for instead of what we are unhappy about.
In this week of Thanksgiving, we can find inspiration from our Torah portion and our ancestor Jacob in just how to accomplish this.
At the beginning of our great Sedrah of Vayeitzei this Shabbat Jacob has an extraordinary dream. He is fleeing his angry brother Esau who has threatened to kill him, and he has fled from home without possessions or security. He has a lot of reasons to be troubled, fearful, negative, critical. Things look bleak, bad and dangerous. Now he lies on the ground, with nothing better to sleep on than a rock, and sees a ladder going to the sky, the proverbial stairway to heaven, and he sees angels ascending and descending. Atop that he visualizes God, and God makes Jacob a promise: God will make him the ancestor of a great nation, and the very land he is lying upon will become his national homeland. Don’t worry, Jacob, don’t fear, God says: it will all come out well for you.
Jacob awakens, and becomes aware at that moment of something we all wish we could remember. He says something truly wonderful: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it!” He concludes that that place is holy. And he offers a prayer of gratitude at a time when he has, almost literally, nothing.
How much more should we, children of a land that has so much plenty, offer thanksgiving and gratitude, and words of praise? This week—and we won’t meet for Shabbat for two weeks now, so you actually have a fortnight to do this—seek to offer words of gratitude in place of kvetches. This week, thank those people in your life for whom you are grateful. This week, when you hear or see or read harsh or defamatory words, find a way to replace them with words of goodness and thanksgiving.
And then we may all begin to restore this incredible world we have been given to wholeness and good.