What else might we discover as we enjoy our Thanksgiving meal? Even the food that we eat on Thanksgiving can open our minds even as we open our mouths.
In the Torah reading for this week, Miketz, our hero, Joseph, rises to manage Pharaoh’s agricultural output during 7 years of plenty and the subsequent 7 years of famine. In the Hasidic commentary, Maor vaShemesh, Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Epstein of Krakow draws the conclusion that in times of plenty and times of famine we might not treat food so differently. He teaches that even in times of plenty we can choose to eat less and still be satisfied:
“we are to draw out the spiritual holiness to the food and produce so that when we eat food it will be its spiritual aspect, its innerness which is appointed in it. This is how there can be satisfaction from the food.”
Rabbi Kalmish teaches that stuffing ourselves silly is no more satisfying than suffering from famine. When we eat with awareness, we not only enjoy the food more (and potentially eat less). We might also come to find a higher purpose in our food.
What spiritual lessons might accompany a Thanksgiving feast?
1. Seeking Democracy, Inclusion and Civil HarmonyWhen President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation for the new republic in 1789, he declared it:
“a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Rather than celebrating the harvest or even mentioning the Pilgrims, Washington invoked the importance of democratic ideals. In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the first annual Thanksgiving proclamation, he hoped that the holiday would lead to “peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
The Thanksgiving meal that Americans enjoy today has both political and philosophical roots. Though vegetarians seek other options, turkey was a democratic choice, an inexpensive and plentiful bird that served a large crowd. Likewise, pie was welcomed as an easy dessert (in comparison to fancier fare) that any cook could create at home. When we go around the table on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we too can consider the principles of democracy that unite the many US residents of different religious traditions, races and countries of origin in celebrating this holiday. And what work is still needed to realize these ideals?
2. Remembering those who raise, pick, slaughter, prepare and package our food.“Why do I spend time harvesting food every day for the rest of America and then have to stand in line at a food pantry on Thanksgiving for a plate of food?”
Gerardo Reyes, a tomato picker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers asked this question as the CIW mounted its “Fair Food” campaign. Likewise, last week at a Walmart in Ohio, management set out containers marked “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Social media picked up the photo as a rallying cry for raising the minimum wage (and to support the protesting Walmart workers.
Supporting food pantries at this time of year is an important and laudable way of celebrating our own gifts. But what is going on in our wealthy country when working people can’t afford their own Thanksgiving meal?
3. “Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people's bellies.”This is probably the best-known quotation from Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century rabbi and teacher who is credited with founding the movement of character development known as Mussar. The implications of this statement are without limit. How might this principle affect our stance on food stamps? Religious coercion? Taxes? Health care?
4. Simple gratitudeIn some families, discussions like these may be in conflict with another Jewish value: shalom bayit (peace in the home) or kibud av v’em (honoring one’s parents). If one of your Thanksgiving values is making pleasant family memories, proceed with caution.
It may be enough to stick to the simple formula: today/this year I am grateful for… having enough food to eat, having a day off from work, and living in freedom.
Happy ThanksgivingHappy Hanukkah