Gut Shabbes. Gut Yuntif. Guuuuut leftovers.
We’ve been saying for years in the Religious School – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are NOT JEWISH HOLIDAYS… yet here we are. It’s Thanksgiving, and it’s Chanukah, a confluence of festivity not to happen again for about 80,000 years. We scramble to imbue this Yom haTarnagol – Day of the Turkey – with Yiddishkeit. Our Menurkeys are proudly displayed in the windows of our Facebook newsfeeds, and don't those puritan hats, pants, and stockings look strangely Chassidic? Try as we might to combine them, each holiday has its own separate traditions. But still, their origins share some striking similarities (although I assure you there were no Streimels on the Mayflower).
Thanksgiving begins with the story we all know of the “first” harvest in the New World. We have a bucolic image in our cultural memory of the multi-ethnic feasts of yore, hosted outside in the typical warm, sunny November day of New England. So it’s not quite convincing historically, but it’s still a beautiful ideal to serve as the foundation-story of our festival. I challenge you to find a fact more true than the fiction we tell of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, illustrating deeply rooted and real American values. This story is the essence of Thanksgiving, but mai Chanukah – what then is Chanukah?
Chanukah, like Thanksgiving, is also a Harvest celebration. It’s not the story we usually tell, but it’s how it happened. With the Greeks in control of the Temple, Jews missed the fall harvest festival, Sukkot – the only holiday at the time that lasted exactly eight days. When the Greeks were finally gone, the Jews rededicated the Temple and got to celebrate this eight-day festival, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Perhaps November isn’t the ideal time to celebrate the harvest, but better late than never.
Gratitude is an obvious theme for a harvest festival. Jewish liturgy focuses less on the result of the harvest – the food on our plates – instead looking at the most basic building block: water. In an age of international shipping and supermarkets, we are still dependent on the whims of nature, and the Siddur recognizes this. The poem “Geshem” – rain – is recited to celebrate the Fall seasonal shift, which in Israel means the onset of the rainy season.
Remember the Patriarch, Abraham
Who followed you like water.
You blessed him like a tree planted beside streams of water.
You sought him because he sowed righteousness by all waters.
Chorus: For his sake, do not withhold water.
What’s amazing is that the last line of each verse – the chorus – is strikingly similar to that famous Football jingle which airs every Sunday, but also yesterday in honor of Thanksgiving.
Beyond the changing of seasons, there’s another connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving that is quite surprising: civil war. While we often tell the story of Chanukah as a struggle for religious freedom between Jews and Greeks, the truth is that many Jews were quite happy with the modern advances of Greek culture: new philosophy, food, learning, civic institutions, plus an entire Rolodex of gods for every occasion. This war was as much between “traditional” and “modern” Jews as it was between Jews and Greeks. The book of I Maccabees, one of many ancient Jewish books that didn’t make it into the Bible, describes in chapter 2 the first “attack” of this war by Matityahu’s hand not against a Greek, but against a Hellenized Jew.
Thanksgiving too has roots in civil war. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the final Thursday in November in 1863. His Secretary of State wrote:
“[D]iversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence [sic], have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship[...] They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
And so as we approach the ikkar – the core – of these two festivals, a central theme emerges. Immediately after a terrible civil war in the Land of Israel, our ancestors found it important to worship – to express gratitude for the miracles of the land that keep us alive day after day, despite human efforts to the contrary. In the midst of the American civil war too, Lincoln’s proclamation speaks of prayer:
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, […] 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."
Gratitude is easy – when we offer thanks to others, we can see the results. Prayer, on the other hand, is hard. One of my bar mitzvah students last year, Andrew Maglio, spoke well about challenge in his own prayer, writing, “God, we hope we pray correctly – that our prayers are good enough. We try hard. Will you listen?”
And so this time, above all else, is a time to pray. It is a time of Thanksgiving, it is a time of dedication – Chanukah, and let us not forget, it is also Shabbat. Both civil wars exhausted the people and drained their spirit. And so they desperately needed a time set apart – a time that is sacred and a time that is shielded from the destructive labors of war. A time commanded for joy so that families divided could come together again and celebrate the miracles of nature. Wars never seem quite finished, and forcing a conclusion feels as impossible as holding back the first snowfall. Shabbat trains us to stop. When the moment arrives where stopping feels impossible, we can be ready.
D'var Torah originally given at the Suburban Temple Kol-Ami in Cleveland, Ohio, 11/29/13.