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Embracing the Message of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday unaffiliated with any specific religious faith nor is it mentioned in any of their religious texts or liturgy. Yet the immigrant settlers, the Pilgrims, and their leaders recognized the existence of God, Sovereign of the universe. They were grateful that divine providence provided for their needs in a new and strange land. Escaping religious intolerance in England and mainland Europe, they established safeguards in America to worship God freely in their own way. These facts in mind, many modern-day Torah authorities, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l to name only two, sanction its commemoration as well as the eating of Thanksgiving turkey.

President George Washington issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation setting November 26, 1789 as Thanksgiving and a national holiday. However, it wasn’t until 1863 during the administration of President Lincoln, following a 17 year campaign by Ms. Sara Hale to create Thanksgiving as a national holiday when workers would not be required to work, that a second proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday was issued. Finally in 1941, Thanksgiving was established by Congress to take place annually on the 4th Thursday of November. As Jews living in America, what should be our relationship to this day?

The Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchick of blessed memory, a modern scion of world Jewry, made an important observation from a verse we read a few weeks ago in the Torah portion, Chaye Sarah. When our patriarch, Abraham, first introduced himself to the inhabitants of Canaan in order to purchase from them a burial place for his beloved wife and matriarch, Sarah, he said “גר ותושב אנכי עמכם, a stranger and a resident I am with you.” The Rav remarked, “There appears to be a contradiction here in this פסוק, verse. What is it? Simply, how can you be a stranger and resident at the same time?!”

The Rav went on to explain that Avraham had a dual identity. As a resident he would share with the other inhabitants of Canaan and join in their concern for the welfare of the society. He would participate in the progress and advancement of the country, show loyalty to the government, abide by its civil laws, and uphold the dignity of all the citizens irrespective of their ethnic diversity.

However, Avrham had a second identity. His religious and spiritual perceptions, truths and observances were different and unique from the people of Canaan. In his faith he remained a stranger. His solidarity with his fellow Canaanites in secular matters did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness.

The Torah tells us only certain events and remarks of our patriarchs. It records those that are to serve as a model and paradigm for us living many centuries later. Throughout the ages and in every county, we have dwelled in, Jews became full and productive citizens. They involved themselves whenever possible in advancing the society and its ethical standards. Business, science and technology, arts and music, literature and philosophy are all domains of society in which Jews have made significant contributions wherever they have found themselves. Jews were and are always in the forefront of civil rights, standing up for the welfare of others. Politically active, attaining positions of high office for themselves when not limited by edict, or serving as advisors to royalty and government leaders, Jews have had a positive influence on every country in which we lived. 

This was true in the past, and has certainly been true of our experience as Jews living in America. As Jews living in America, we do not have to hide or shed our spiritual identity in the process of carrying out our responsibilities as American citizens. We, perhaps more than any other generation since our exile 2000 years ago, live in a country where, thank God, kosher food is readily available, laws are established to prevent discrimination in the workplace against anyone who fully embraces our religious observances. We, Jews are found in all levels and every branch of the American government. There are currently 37 of us in the 117th Congress out a total of 535 members; 10 are senators and 27 are representatives. Two of the nine current justices on the Supreme Court are Jews.

Most important, however, is that in America we can have our own private Jewish day schools, such as the Posnack Jewish Day School. They are fully recognized and accredited by the same agencies that approve all the other secular educational institutions in America. Without fear of rejection, Jews in America can get the best education in both secular and Jewish studies.

Living in America today, not only as citizens but particularly as Jewish American citizens, we have much to be thankful for. One identity does not have to come at the expense of the other. We can have the best of both worlds. I encourage each of us to keep the lesson of our patriarch, Abraham, foremost in our minds, particularly this coming week of Thanksgiving. God has blessed this country and bestowed on it His bounty. We are obligated להכיר טוב להשם”,” to recognize God for His goodness and in turn use His blessings on America to benefit all mankind.

Shabbat Shalom and a reflective and grateful Thanksgiving next week,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan