Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket?
As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.
That may be because the first Thanksgiving had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). Or maybe because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for “thanks” (Judah), and our word for “blessing” – beracha – is related to the word for “knee” – berach – which we take in the posture of gratitude. Thanksgiving also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle for pennies (isn’t that the universal tradition?). Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.
The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Puritans believed the Anglican Church had introduced too many impure practices. They sought to return Christianity to its roots in the Jewish Bible. America, in their narrative, was the Promised Land. They consciously imitated the Jews by trying to establish both a Holy Land and an earthly utopia, free from tyranny. They called it the New Eden. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were at least as attached to the Old Testament as the new one.
A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”
They also imbibed the message of that Hebrew Bible: the human soul is enslaved to no earthly power.
As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
In the Bible a powerful king of the Philistines, Avimelech, harasses Isaac and his tribe in what is now Gaza by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac retraces his steps and re-opens the wells. He thrives and grows wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac,” submitting to him to ask for a peace treaty.
The lesson is the stuff of Hollywood: eventually, the huge and powerful bow to the superiority of the small and brave who stick to their mission and their authenticity.
On this Thanksgiving, my personal gratitude is for the few and the just who still overcome the mighty and many, just as the movies promised me when I was a kid. I’m thankful that the very sign we have a soul is our yearning to be free. Its our connection to a divine force beyond forced bondage to any terrestrial thing.
Except maybe my wife’s transcendent brisket.