Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Spiritual Nourishment in the Thanksgiving Feast

At our temple-wide pre-Hanukkah celebration this past Sunday, we invited kids and adults to share their thoughts about what makes Thanksgivukkah so great. Like so much of the conversation in the blogosphere, many comments highlighted creative menu items, like cranberry applesauce or smoked turkey on bagels.  I am personally looking forward to my daughter’s challah stuffing.

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 Harmony
When 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 gratitude
In 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 Thanksgiving
Happy Hanukkah
Happy Thanksgivukkah

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why is this Hanukkah different from all other Hanukkahs?

Hanukkah is in three weeks. What are you doing about it?

HBT wants to help you get ready for this historic EARLY Hanukkah.

First, we will celebrate together on Sunday, November 24 with Hanukkah Kulanu Yachad/All of Us Together. Our Sunday morning event will help us all prepare by singing songs, buying rainbow candles, and sharing family time together. We will also prepare by reflecting on which Hanukkah message we want to share this year. Young and old, with families or not, please plan to be at HBT and bring friends too. This will be a terrific way to share what makes HBT such a special place.

Our theme will be “Thanksgivukkah,” an unusual occurrence that won’t happen again until 2070 (those predictions of 79,000 years until this happens again were just plain wrong.) Still, that’s a long time from now, which most adults will not experience unless immortality is one of our future Hanukkah gifts.

Let’s think about the correlations between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Themes of survival, standing up for religious freedom (Pilgrims and Maccabees), and dedication to a cause quickly come to mind.  We might also consider the place of community service as a way to celebrate both holidays.

What I find interesting is that Hanukkah juxtaposed with Thanksgiving can be a very different kind of celebration than Hanukkah juxtaposed with Christmas.

This means more than latkes with cranberry sauce or turkey-shaped hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs). When we bump up against Christmas, the surrounding culture encourages an unhealthy material competition: how many presents did YOU get? However, with just twenty more shopping days until Hanukkah, we are out of synch with the shopping season.

When Hanukkah arrives in November, perhaps we can alter the focus, at least for one year, from gifts to gratitude, the central theme of Thanksgiving. Both holidays can bring us together with our families. After all, we will be lighting most of our candles during a four-day holiday weekend when many of us will have time off from work. This year, Hanukkah could mean watching a movie together by candlelight, or lighting candles after a hike in the Blue Hills.

Hanukkah gratitude might lead to giving to others. Check out this extensive list of organizations and causes, Jewish and otherwise. Once Hanukkah is out of the way, we can plan to join a service project when December 25 rolls around, and help others enjoy their holiday.

I was moved by “The Thanksgivukkah Manifesto,” a serious treatment of the possibilities raised by the convergence of these holidays by Rabbi Mishael Zion on the Huffington Post. Rabbi Zion writes:

“Thanksgiving is a much needed model for an increasingly secular American Jewry….Thanksgivukkah is an invitation to celebrate the places where Jewishness enriches America, and where America enriches the Jewish people.”

Not everyone is enamored with Thanksgivukkah. Because we believe in diversity, for those who are already tired or skeptical of the hype, I commend my colleague, Rabbi Daniel Brenner’s rant ‘Why I will not be celebrating Thanksgivukkah.’ and his “Anti-Thanksgivukkah Anthem.”

My take? I think that an event that brings together two holidays that appeal to Jews, includes food, and only occurs once in our lifetime is worthy of a little humor and the kitsch that comes along with it. (Learn the Thanksgivukkah anthem here!)Come, spin the dreidl and think about the great miracle that happened---where? Plymouth Rock? Jerusalem? Or maybe, West Roxbury? We’ll find out in three weeks!