Dear B’nai Shalom members, friends, and families:
Although recent horrible events in Israel and the nightmarish, unthinkable atrocities of barbaric magnitude have had an absurd, ignorant, and vehemently anti-Jewish effect HERE in the United States, (particularly – though not exclusively on college campuses), so many wonderful aspects of being an American in an-ostensibly free country remain true.
One of those truly American values is the observance of a nationwide holiday observed by so many Americans known as Thanksgiving.
For many Americans, one would not think twice about celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving. It would be a foregone conclusion and something that one would not need to think twice about. For many Jews, the question could be asked, and one might ponder whether Thanksgiving falls into the “in between” category of holidays which are not purely American and patriotic in nature, or those that are on our Federal calendars as a national holiday, but are clearly Christian in their origin and celebration. Nothing is more clearly in THAT category than Christmas, which is a purely Christian religious holiday, celebrating the birth of the perceived Christian messiah Jesus. The twenty-fifth of December is an acknowledged Federal holiday, recognized everywhere in our fifty states, with businesses, banks, schools, and market
places closed. It is prominently displayed on every type of calendar one could procure except for our Jewish calendar. Regardless of the clear purpose and ongoing commemoration of the holiday, it remains a Federal holiday with as much identification as the America’s Independence Day.
And speaking of Independence Day, better known as the Fourth of July, this holiday falls into the category of celebrations that are purely American in their origin and commemoration. I would offer that along with Independence Day, we could safely include Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day, without too much contradiction.
The aforementioned “in between” category of holidays would be a group of holidays that would appear to be not quite purely “American” in their inception and celebration but not fully Christian such as Christmas, Easter, or Good Friday. This “in between” category of holidays would include Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day, and possibly New Years Day. While those who know would immediately (and appropriately) lump St. Valentine’s Day in the category including Christmas and Easter, Halloween was originally Pagan in its origin. It was LATER adopted by Christian tradition and today may be argued by Jews who choose to ignore its origin and implications in favor of feeling neutral about that part of the holiday in order to fill large bags of free and available candy.
However, I would argue that Thanksgiving is different. In fact, I would argue in favor of acknowledging and celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving as an important American holiday. Thanksgiving is an exceptionally unique holiday when contrasted with the other national holidays of the United States. It is one of the few, if only, festival celebrated purely for the reason it was created.
Thanksgiving was created as an opportunity to give thanks for the bountiful goodness the earth gave forth for the Pilgrims when they first came to this continent. They saw fit to set aside time (later enacted into law as a holiday) to humbly thank G-d for providing mankind with its mortal sustenance. This is an admirable notion and one that is completely consistent with our own Jewish thought.
According to many Jewish sources, there is nothing un-Jewish about observing Thanksgiving. Quite the contrary. It is a common ethical lesson found in the major religions of the world to show humility, gratitude and thanks. There is a sense of appreciation to the government of the United States of America that this country has seen fit to include a holiday on its calendar that embodies all of these admirable and noble qualities. And we should feel a real sense of pride when we recognize that the American holiday of Thanksgiving is based upon, and patterned after our own holiday of Sukkot. It is our contribution to the American heritage that has helped to create this particular American holiday.
There are Jews in various communities who are reluctant about observing American holidays including Thanksgiving. They may feel that recognizing an American holiday somehow shows disloyalty to the Jewish state, people or religion. But, there are also Jews who are fiercely protective of this holiday based on their own experiences. Those Jews who came from Europe as immigrants to America probably feel the strongest about celebrating Thanksgiving. They left “the Old Country” in order to seek refuge from the hardships put upon them by cruel and persecuting governments. Upon landing on the shores of freedom in the United States, they were utterly grateful to be in a land where they would not be persecuted by the government.
Additionally, the notion behind giving thanks, and even setting side an entire day of giving thanks, is part and parcel of what being Jewish is about. Most of our tefillot are prayers of thanks to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, to Almighty G-d, for all that He does and provides for us. Participating in an American holiday that resounds with Jewish values certainly does not detract from our Yiddishkeit. It adds pride and recognition to all of the aspects of Jews’ contribution to the world, hugely disproportionate to our relatively tiny population.
With these thoughts in mind, I fully and enthusiastically wish all of you a happy, safe Thanksgiving, and hope it is an opportunity to be united with family and loved ones. In addition, I hope it is a genuine occasion on which to reflect on all that is good in one’s life and to offer thanks, in one way or another, for all the bountiful blessings we enjoy and incorporate into our lives.
In addition, THIS year, BECAUSE of the horrible events in Israel and the nightmarish, unthinkable barbaric atrocities, we also turn our focus and our hearts and minds to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, to Almighty G-d, asking for a swift and successful triumph against the perpetrators of evil occupying a portion of our Holyland, for the safe and immediate return of all of the hostages, captives, and prisoners currently held by the enemy, and complete and all-encompassing protection for the brave members of the Israel Defense Forces and all of the residents of Eretz Yisrael.
With Torah blessings always,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin