Thanksgiving: The American Sukkot
By Rabbi Navah Levine, Rabbi-Educator, Temple Emeth
The leaves have fallen and there are no Jewish holidays… It must be November! But wait... As I look more closely, I realize that there is indeed a Jewish holiday this month. It wears secular clothes, involves no extra synagogue services, and is celebrated by people of multiple religions and backgrounds, so it’s easy to miss its Jewish character. The holiday, of course, is Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving: The American Sukkot.
Granted, on Thanksgiving we generally eat indoors and not in a Sukkah. We wave no lulav nor enjoy the scent of etrogim. Still, Sukkot and Thanksgiving have a lot in common. Both holidays celebrate the agricultural harvest, and both involve sharing good food in the company of others. The two holidays fall in pretty close proximity to each other (If you are Canadian, then the two are even closer; this year, Canadian Thanksgiving fell on October 8, coinciding with Shmini Atzeret, the day right after Sukkot). Many others have drawn the connection between Thanksgiving and Sukkot and some, including the Pilgrim historian Caleb Johnson, suggest that the Pilgrims indeed modeled a festive day on the biblical holiday Sukkot.
As a festive occasion, Thanksgiving is not without its problematic aspects. The story so many of us learned as children (grateful Pilgrims sharing a neighborly meal with the Native Americans who befriended them) is pretty difficult to swallow, let alone celebrate, when one considers the actual history of relations between Europeans and American Indians.
So, as I start to contemplate Thanksgiving – a holiday I enjoy immensely – I find myself thinking of it through the prism of Sukkot, and finding ways that this association might help express what it is that I value in this quintessentially American holiday.
We call Sukkot zman simchateinu, “the Season of our Rejoicing.” Sukkot is a holiday where we pause to enjoy our bounty. We move out of our comfortable homes to dwell (at least somewhat) in a Sukkah. Doing so heightens our sense of vulnerability – remember how many sukkah meals this year were curtailed by mosquitoes and rain! – and at the same time, helps us appreciate what we have even without sturdy walls , including the simple-yet-essential pleasure of gathering to share a meal and precious time together.
For me, Thanksgiving also serves to focus my attention on appreciating what – and who – I have in my life. Part of that comes from the annual go around the table, sharing something for which we each are thankful. But it also comes from the simple fact of spending a day together – cooking , eating, and even watching a little football, together.
After the harvest was in and their taxes (tithes) were paid, after they had provided for the most vulnerable in their midst, the Israelites of antiquity were commanded to be joyful: “You shall rejoice in all the good which Adonai your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 26:11). A skeptic asked whether this meant one need only express gratitude when good things happen. A wise person responded to the skeptic that just being able to live is a blessing; therefore, every day we have something for which to be grateful. Every day we have reason to “rejoice in all the good.”
This Thanksgiving, and indeed every day, may we each be blessed with the ability to rejoice in all the good which heaven has bestowed upon us.
Image used under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license from Briar Press.