We have once again come to a time that we can add the appendage “like no other,” something we have been doing since March. After a Passover like no other, the High Holidays like no other, and a myriad of smaller, more personal milestones, we have arrived at a Thanksgiving like no other. As we continue to confront this pandemic, we are approaching this holiday in different ways, refraining from large gatherings of family and friends in order to do what we can to stem the spread of the virus.
We as Jews were prepared for this, having spent Passover in very much the same way. We made the same special foods, perhaps, albeit in smaller portions, and we gathered with others not around a big table, but remotely over zoom or phone.
As we learned from that Passover experience, there are other ways to make meaning from holidays other than the way we have become accustomed. True we may have felt the loss of certain traditions and expectations, but when this becomes impossible we find new ways of celebration to go along with the grief.
For that is, in many ways, our human condition. We need to hold on to conflicting emotions at the same time. Grief and gratitude go hand in hand; we can acknowledge our pain and sorrow at the same time we are able to identify our joys and appreciation. As we come to Thanksgiving, a day set aside in our civic religion for gratitude, we also note that this is particularly a time of grief. This year we grieve loss, sickness, death, loneliness, separation, economic hardship. We hold these as individuals, and we also hold them as a society.
So what to be grateful for? We all have our own personal moments of gratitude during this time–I am personally grateful for the roof over my head, the food we consume, good health, and more time spent with my spouse and children. As a society, we have things to be grateful for as well–an impending change in leadership which will hopefully usher in a new era. And, in addition, we can be grateful for the ability to heal and change.
And this takes us back to the original foundation of our modern day celebration of Thanksgiving. While we have the mythic story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, a story that covers a history of genocide and colonialism which we need to own and atone for, the contemporary American holiday also has its roots in the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln created the modern holiday of Thanksgiving with a proclamation in 1863. In it he wrote:
I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
The day of Thanksgiving is therefore just as much a day of healing as it is a day of gratitude.
We have much healing to do as a nation. The past four years have brought harm to many populations in the United States, including Jews, with increased incidents of anti-Semitism and outward expressions of white supremacy. We already mentioned the healing we need to do with the Native population for historic and continued oppression. And we have much healing to do around racial justice, as evidenced most recently by the Black Lives Matter marches that swept the nation this summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
This last issue we will be taking head on as a congregation, opening up the conversation about how we as Jews can contribute to racial justice and healing in our country. Over the next few months we will hold a book discussion, a teaching about the Jewish view of reparations, and invite a guest speaker to speak of local issues in Olympia. Following these three events we will hopefully have a discussion about what’s next. Please look for more details and I invite you to join me in this important conversation.
This Thanksgiving, for the first time, I made a pie from scratch. (Not just at Thanksgiving, but ever.) If you have been following me on social media you know I have been leaning more into baking during the pandemic, and have been using the contraction of space and time to turn inward and develop a hobby I enjoy that also gives delight to other. Looking to get a little fancy and decorate, I found a “chai” (“life” in Hebrew) cookie cutter in one of our cabinets, so I used it to cut out some crust dough and placed it on top.
Today, we each take our personal moments of joy and grief, gratitude and healing. Today, we acknowledge the joy and grief, gratitude and healing as a greater community. Today, we affirm all of this. Today, we affirm life.