Gratitude on This Day

Gratitude

For Family

For Friends

For Community

For Food

For Labor

For Production

For Sacrifice

For Commitment

For Memory

For Acknowledgment

For Reconciliation

For Healing

For Stories

For Perspective

For Understanding

For Honesty

For Resistance

For Vision

For Redemption

For Change

For Justice

For Compassion

For Peace

For All

On Mascots, Ice Skating and Standing with Standing Rock

We gathered for Thanksgiving last week with friends up in Seattle. I look forward to Thanksgiving, it is one holiday which I do not need to work for one, and can spend with my wife and kids. Since our extended families are distant, we have more often than not spent it with friends, and I enjoy the opportunity to meet new people and renew past relationships. I love the food, and the civic focus on gratitude is an important injection of spiritual values into our “secular society.” This year our host handed out copies of the Constitution, further opportunity for reflection on where we have been and were we are going as a country, especially after this last election.

Where we have been is an important question on Thanksgiving, because we know from the history of this country the holiday is not celebrated by all. While we tend to tell a story of friendship and cooperation, we know the real history of the colonists and the Native population was devastating, including conquest and genocide.

I wrote a few years ago (On Thankgivukkah!) how our modern Thanksgiving is rooted in the Civil War as well, as it only became a fixed national holiday in Lincoln’s time. The idea was unity at a time of disunity, and Lincoln’s proclamation is a noble document. And while we can strive for its aims, we can not do so outside the historical context in which the “original” Thanksgiving and the “modern” Thanksgiving are based. (Lincoln also was responsible for one of the largest mass executions in US history, of Native Americans.)

This history was writ large this year in an unfortunate irony through another American Thanksgiving tradition: football. The National Football League plays games on Thanksgiving, and as I sat down to watch I was shocked to see the Dallas Cowboys—who traditionally play on Thanksgiving day—playing the Washington Redskins, which is a team name I prefer not to use but do so here for the point of illustration. On Thanksgiving Day, millions sat down to watch the Cowboys versus the “Indians.”

And Thanksgiving comes just a few weeks after that other traditional pastime, the Major League Baseball World Series, which pitted the Chicago Cubs versus the Cleveland Indians, which is another term I prefer not to use but use it here for the point of illustration. Another major league sports team, another problematic name. Plus the Cleveland baseball team has a racist mascot, a caricature of a Native American elder.

In America, we compound the painful history by reducing Native Americans to stereotypes, mascots and caricatures.

This is made all the more tragic, or ludicrous, our sad because currently there are Native populations staging an active and major protest in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux are are protesting the construction of an oil pipeline that would be built on their historic land near their reservation and under the Missouri River, which serves as the source of their drinking water. A leak could be devastating to the Sioux and the environment.

The protests are augmented by the knowledge that the original path of the pipeline was to be closer to the city of Bismark, which would still need to go under the Missouri River, but complaints by the population about potential leaks there prompted the moving of the pipeline. This just the latest in a long history of the US Government and business interests slowly eroding or outright disregarding the agreements with and the rights and lands of Native Americans, and the reaction by authorities has resonant historical echoes.

While this was happening, this week out of Russia was the obscene news that the wife of a Russian official participated in a ice skating routine to a Holocaust theme. Dressed in concentration camp uniforms complete with yellow star, the skaters danced on a reality television show to the theme to the Holocaust movie, “Life is Beautiful.”

I felt a strong sense of parallelism.  A culture once thriving, then driven almost completely out of existence through genocide, now pantomimed in a way that mimics and distorts reality. The connection between the approach to Jews in Europe and Native Americans in the United States was noticeable in this instance: Jews in Europe have, like the Native Americans here, been reduced to mascots.

Which is why the protests at Standing Rock deserve our attention and support.

Our Jewish history is a history of displacement and being driven from our homes. We may have grown comfortable in our position in this country, but our  history is in our DNA. And with the rise of this new government, we Jews are being reminded more and more how we should not be as comfortable as we are. Threatened and oppressed populations require our support.

But not only that. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve our attention and support because they are bringing to the forefront issues which we should all care about: protection of our earth, protection of our water, our dependence on fossil fuels and the need to respect all peoples. That and the reckoning of the sins that built this country and their perpetuation in how the Native population is treated today. We all need to sit up and take notice.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of Programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said it so well in a letter to supporters this week when she tied the situation to the weekly Torah portion. She wrote,

In this week’s parshah, Toldot, we read about how the Phillistines blocked up the wells Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac to redig them in search of Rechovot–wide open spaces where he could live in peace. The Native American water protectors are standing up not just for their own protection but for all of us who want clean water, sacred sites, and human rights protected from corporate greed.

Our spiritual history and actual history and values compel us to take a stand. We all deserve the protection of those things that are most precious to us, things like water, and respect, and peace.

Why We Created the Olympia Charter for Compassion

A few months ago, spurred on by a spate of hate crimes in our small town of Olympia, I along with a group of local clergy met to think about what we can do. While we all understand the pastoral and teaching role we play in our communities, serving our own traditions, we also take seriously the role we can play in the public sphere, bringing the language of morality and ethics to our political and civic conversations.

From our initial meeting came the idea to craft a “charter of compassion,” a statement of values that we wanted to offer to our community and civic leadership. The idea is that the response to hate crimes would not just be about individual victimization but about the violation of fundamental values as a community.

The charter would also potentially inform other communal conversations. In my mind, I thought that having a statement of values that could be used to address our response to the issue of people suffering homelessness, that policy decisions could be made not just by political expediency, or solely in response to a vocal stakeholder, but by an appeal to basic spiritual and moral values.

We crafted a statement and passed it along to local clergy to sign on. We created a website that would allow any community member to affirm the charter. Last week we then brought it to City Council, reading it as part of the open comment period that opens each meeting. As the comment period came to a close, to our surprise, Councilmember Nathaniel Jones immediately made a motion to adopt the charter, a motion that then passed unanimously.

The timing of the release of the charter to the election was somewhat coincidental. We did not mean to time it to come out after the election, delays in planning pushed back the original date prior to the election that we had hoped to present it. Of course if things had gone according to plan we would not have known the results of the election. But perhaps it was the news of the election that led to the motivation to embrace this document.

I also recognize I’m posting this on our national holiday of Thanksgiving, which carries with it different meanings to different populations. For some a celebration, for others a day of lament. For some a focus on season and harvest, for others a focus on gratitude and humility. For some a focus on community, for others a focus on family. For some a time of harmony, for others a time of discord.

For all of these, the value of compassion can be our intention–a powerful motivator for how we relate to each other, to our history, to our community. Compassion does not imply approval or agreement, it is what simply brings us to recognize the fundamental dignity and worth of everyone. It is my prayer that we truly see compassion for all people made manifest in the days, weeks and years to come.

While originally written in response to past events, it may be this Charter of Compassion that will carry us forward to face the future.

The text of the charter is below, I invite everyone who so wishes to go to olycompassion.org and sign up.

  • As a community, we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. In doing so, we strive to practice respect and compassion towards one another, engage in civil dialogue, honor each individual as we ourselves would like to be honored.
  • As a community, we recognize our interdependence. In doing so, we strive to work collaboratively, bringing all voices to the table to solve community issues for the benefit of everyone.
  • As a community, we believe we must create a society where all people are able to live into their best selves. In doing so, we use our best efforts to work together for the common good. This means that public officials and citizens speak out with one voice against bigotry, racism, and religious prejudice.
  • As a community, we strive to live our shared values as we work to build a community that welcomes and respects the unique gifts brought by all those who make up our diverse Olympia community.

Reunions

This is the week of reunions.

For many, the holiday of Thanksgiving means a reunion of sorts, a coming together with family and friends who we may only see this one time a year. This is one of the special aspects of holiday time, we not only connect with the spirit of the season, and not only eat special symbolic foods, but we renew relationships that are maintained, even in the age of Facebook, at a distance.

These reunions can sometimes be fraught. Each year at this time we come across magazine articles and blog posts about estrangement, how to navigate complex family dynamics, what to say to your racist uncle, how to graciously deflect questions about one’s own life choices, how to talk (or not talk) about politics, and on and on. The fact that Thanksgiving dinner can be a tinderbox waiting to explode is a cliché, but the power of clichés is that they carry some truth to them.

Thanksgiving falls this week as we turn in our Torah reading to the ultimate story of family estrangement and reunion—that of Jacob and Esau. The twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah were at odds since birth, and grew up with very different personalities and interests. In the Torah’s reading, it doesn’t seem like they ever got along. But things really took a turn for the worse when Jacob convinced Esau (who, though a twin, was technically older), to sell him his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And later, with the coaxing of his mother, Jacob tricked his aging father to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Biblical blessings are big deals—it means Jacob, and not Esau, would be the spiritual and economic heir of Isaac. With this final act, the paths of the brothers fully diverged.

But not completely, for in this week’s reading Jacob is preparing to be reunited with his estranged brother. Both have gone on in life to be successful, to increase their holdings and establish families and clans. Jacob is extremely nervous about what is to come, and sent ahead gifts to  placate a man who (in Jacob’s mind)had every reason to hate him and wish him ill. The text then says,

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low; And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Genesis 33:1-12)

Thus the fear the Jacob had, the anxiety about continued hatred, is for naught. Esau is happy to see him, and does not even want to accept his gifts. Jacob too is deeply moved to see his brother. While the text doesn’t speak of apologies and forgiveness, we can image that these took place. We have an example here of a renewed coming together of family members who were driven apart by their past behaviors.

Not completely, for after the meeting they both go their separate ways. But they have reunited, they have healed the relationship.

To add to this theme of reunions, last week attended my 25th high school reunion. It wasn’t a “formal” reunion with nametags featuring our senior class photos and a big banner announcing the “Class of 1990,” but rather a small informal gathering in the back of a bar in Manhattan organized by some of my classmates. And while I was already going to be on the east coast for the board meeting of my rabbinical association, I wasn’t planning on attending the reunion until a friend who lives in Wisconsin who I haven’t seen in those 25 years announced she was planning to attend.

reunion picture
Reunion group photo. Some folks had left by that point, but this is a good representation. I forgot who took the photo, but thanks for posting it on Facebook!

I met some folks for dinner beforehand, and headed off to the bar. It was a fun experience and I had a good time connecting with some old friends. I am glad I went.

It did give me some further perspectives on reunions and relationships:

One, a solid foundation transcends time. There were a few folks there who I had been friends with in high school, but circumstances and geography led to not keeping in touch so much. But in reconnecting, even after 25 years, it was easy to renew those ties. We were able to share our common experience, but it was more the deep feeling of trust and connection developed years ago that was able to transcend any temporal distance.

Two, the people I talked to in high school are the ones I talked to 25 years later. Probably because of observation number one above, it was easier to connect with those I had been friends with in high school than those I had not. At one point someone joked that it seemed like high school all over again, with groups and cliques forming. But probably more out of familiarity than out of exclusion, as others were also renewing connections based on deep feelings of trust and connection.

And three, the old rules don’t apply. Even though I hung out with mostly my closer friends, I was able to connect with folks who were not part of my social circle back then. We were different people now. Old grudges, when they existed, melted away. The separation and reunion provided new opportunities to establish relationships, to form friendships when they may have not have existed before.

Time is an amazing force. It has an amazing ability to heal and renew, but only if we are committed to that healing and renewal, if we are open to new possibilities, and if we are able to draw on a deep reserve of connection that binds us to others.

This is what Jacob experienced in his reunion with Esau. We can imagine that it was Jacob’s view of the relationship that maintained the estrangement. Jacob was at first unable to allow for the possibility that things could be different. Once he encountered his brother, however, he realized they could be. As brothers, they both had a deep well of relationship and feeling upon which to draw, and the time away from each other allowed both brothers to overcome the divide between them. The past doesn’t change, but it doesn’t determine the future.

We remember this as we move towards our own reunions. As we sit around the Thanksgiving table we may find that we are challenged. Deep seated feelings may arise for us. Differences may seem to outshine the similarities. But if we focus on that which brings us together rather than drives us apart, and remain open to that which may come, then our reunions will be happy ones. We will see in the face of others the face of God. And for that, we offer thanks.

The First and Future Thanksgiving

One of my challenges as a rabbi is to make Judaism relevant across demographics. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that what necessitates how we teach Judaism to kids is different than how we teach Judaism to adults. And very often I find that people who study Judaism as adults are surprised by what they discover because they did not feel the Judaism they were taught as kids spoke to their adult sensibilities, and so were, for a  time, turned off.

Well, of course. Judaism requires life-long study and engagement. What we learn as kids is not going to be the same as adults because what we need, what we understand, what we can grapple with is different as an adult than as a child.

This idea shouldn’t be foreign to our civic education as well since we are oftentimes stuck in a childhood vision of what our early American history and especially Thanksgiving is all about: stories of Pilgirms and Native Americans and a shared feast of mutual respect and understanding.

As adults, though, we know the story is much more nuanced and deeper than what we learn in elementary school. The history of the Native population in this country is a tragic one, complete with the ravages of colonialism, the forced exile, and the persistence of inequality.

Every year, it seems, articles are published to remind us of this. While these articles are of course necessary, they remind me of something—that our education must extend beyond elementary school, and that meanings of events change over time. We tend to forget this. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When we are children we are told simple stories to acculturate us. As adults we are obligated to seek out the more nuanced truth behind these stories. Our mature minds require a mature understanding.

After sitting through our wonderful local Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration this past Sunday, I was struck by the fact that Thanksgiving has a completely different meaning to me now that it did when I was younger. As a child, I was told the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, sharing food in a spirit of fellowship. It was a historical celebration. As an adult, the themes of gratitude and the value of sharing dominate. It is a spiritual celebration.

The story of the “first Thanksgiving” is a myth in the classic understanding of the term—not an untrue story but a story thatexodusgodsandking is meant to convey deeper truths beyond particular events. Myths are not meant to write (or rewrite) history, they are meant to write the future. The mythic story of the Exodus from Egypt (soon to be a major motion picture—again) was not meant to tell the events as they happened, but to tell a paradigmatic story of redemption that is meant to shape our future.

The myth of the “first Thanksgiving” was one of unity and harmony across cultures. It was about an existing population welcoming a newly arriving one. It was about the promise of religious liberty in a new land. On the one hand, this covers up a tragic history. On the other hand, it embodies the ideals for which we hope and strive.

As with the story, so too with the celebration. The Passover seder is not meant to recreate an ancient Israelite meal of days gone by, but rather it is to serve as a symbolic feast of future redemption. That is why we find meaning in the meal, with the symbolic foods of bitterness and redemption not referring exclusively to the biblical story of Egyptian bondage, but to the places we recognize oppression in our own day.

When we sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, we would do well to do the same. The meal is not meant to recreate a historic meal that may or may not have happened. [Though one of the things I find powerful about Thanksgiving is that it is a seasonal celebration as well, and eating seasonal and native foods connects one to this land and time.] The meal is meant to be a time to reflect on where we find gratitude right now, but also where we are falling short as a nation in pursuit of those values of equality, liberty, mutual respect and pluralism.

And we are falling short. The struggles of our Native population persist. We are in a new national conversation about immigration—about who we are as Americans, about the extent of the American dream, and how we as a nation of immigrants treat those newly arrived at our borders.

hands upAnd this week, with the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO to hand down an indictment in the shooting death of an unarmed African-American youth, we are once again confronted by our national legacy of racism, white privilege, and institutional forms of oppression. The failure of our criminal justice system to even be open to the possibility of a trial rightfully inspires anger, fear, suspicion and disappointment.

We have much work to do.

As we mark this Thanksgiving, we do recall that story of the “first Thanksgiving”—but not as some pretty historical gloss. Rather, we recall it for what it really is: a story of promise and pain that contains within it both a devastating history and our highest ideals. Our job is to recognize the all of it, and by doing so, we will be able to transform ourselves and our communities.

What Lincoln Can Teach Us About Hanukkah

As a child I was raised on a steady dose of Pilgrims and Native Americans when it came to Thanksgiving. The story was told and retold come fall, and craft projects at school reflected that theme.

As I get older, however, that story seems to have faded from my thoughts as I draw to Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is because that history is more closely tied to that of colonial America, a history germane to my upbringing in New York, but less relevant to the history of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. But also that history is a difficult one, and aspects of American colonialism are not worthy of celebrating. We are reminded of the power of historic narratives, and that those narratives sometimes come into conflict with one another.

While the story of the Plymouth is meant to reflect the “First Thanksgiving”—Thanksgiving holidays were common and were days set aside for prayer in spontaneous response to timely events, like a good harvest. U.S. Presidents would declare days of Thanksgiving as well, though not consistently. States also fixed Thanksgiving holidays and again not consistently and not every state. It was only until President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declared the federal holiday did we have a uniform nationwide date and observance.

LincolnOur national holiday therefore has as much if not more of its roots in Lincoln’s time then colonial times. Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday, coming in the midst of the Civil War and in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, speaks of the need to heal and unify during a destructive internal war.

The declaration reads:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. 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.

In a rare event, Thanksgiving this year overlaps with Hanukkah, and much has been made about this cultural convergence. From turkey menorahs to latkes with cranberry sauce, there is much to find delight in as we celebrate both as American Jews.

But there are deeper connections to be made as well, and reading Lincoln’s declaration can not only impact how we understand Thanksgiving, but how we understand Hanukkah. Reading the Lincoln declaration is a reminder that the holiday of Hanukkah was similarly instituted—by a declaration of the Jewish authorities of the times, after a prolonged military conflict and with an eye towards permanent remembrance of those events.

The story of Hanukkah speaks of the revolt of the Jewish community in Judea against the oppression of King Antiochus and the ruling Seleucid Empire. After the conflict, led by the Hasmoneans (also known as Maccabees), which resulted in Jewish independence and the rededication of the ancient Temple, “Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the month of Kislev.” [1 Maccabees 4:59]

What we need to remember is that although we commonly tell the story of Hanukkah as a battle between the Jewish loyalists who wished to reestablish their religious practices and political independence in opposition to Greek hegemony, the conflict did also contain elements of a civil war among the Jewish community at the time, with traditionalists and Hellenizers internally battling each other.

Just as the Lincoln declaration was to create a day of healing during war, with an eye toward bringing together different factions, we can understand the creation of Hanukkah to be an observance dedicated to healing after war. One could imagine, that after the war of the Hasmoneans, the Jewish community was also in need of “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union,” and a communal celebration could do just that.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we bring to mind many things. The thirst for religious liberty of our ancestors reminds us of the blessings of religious liberty we share and celebrate in this country. And when we light the menorahs at the darkest time of the year, we seek to brighten up the spiritual darkness that oftentimes pervades our lives, and use it as an opportunity to identify our own darknesses that need illumination.

And we also remember the story itself. Not just the miracle of one day’s worth of oil that burned for eight during the rededication of the Temple, a story made popular by the rabbis in the Talmud. But the historical story of strife, conflict, war and division. And that after times of conflict, we must pray for peace. After times of division, we must pray for unity.

As Lincoln in his declaration reminds us, Thanksgiving unity and peace means not only the ability to recognize and express gratitude for the blessings in our lives, but the necessity to reach out to those in need who may not yet share those blessings.

And the ability to overcome differences, heal, offer thanks and support those who continue to suffer is a Hanukkah miracle as well.