Thanksgiving? or Apologiesgiving?
Thanksgiving has always been a quiet affair for my family. Chalk it up, I suppose, to how much time I spend around here and perhaps that sheds some light on it. Truth be told, Thanksgiving is always a three-pronged experience for me.
Usually it begins with the Greenburgh Interfaith Caring Community’s Thanksgiving Service which, although I missed it this year due to my being in New Orleans for a wedding, always makes me feel grateful that I live in a world where being Jewish is part of a stunning tapestry of American identities where tolerance and brotherhood are, at the very least, part of our national dream and, at our best, part of our rivertowns’ actual definition. That service is a celebration of America at its best, all of us coming together for the purpose of giving thanks for the blessings we all share and, while we’re at it, to bring an offering of needed products to be distributed to the less fortunate in our community.
The second Thanksgiving experience is meeting my Confirmation families in the vestibule just outside those sanctuary doors and spending Thanksgiving morning preparing a turkey dinner with all the requisite fixings that we then deliver to the VOA Shelter in Valhalla. In my opinion, there’s no better way to prepare for my Thanksgiving meal than by joining together with my temple family in assisting other families so that they can also celebrate Thanksgiving.
By the time I sit down to the third prong of my Thanksgiving experience – the Dreskin turkey dinner with the people I love most – my heart is already full and just waiting for my stomach to catch up. I go to sleep more spiritually satisfied on Thanksgiving than perhaps any other day of the year.
I share this with you because we’re living in an especially unsettling and disturbing time in history. And we should be disturbed. No one should celebrate this weekend without acknowledging the continuing injustices of American racism, American sexism, American homophobia, American economic inequality, and American diplomatic arrogance. Not to mention, the continuing American indifference to the Native American. Did you know that there has never been a public apology for our government’s murdering American Indians by the tens of thousands, stealing their land and booting the survivors onto reservations. This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, in which 200 women, children and older men were killed by Union troops during the Civil War for no militarily justifiable reason. What we did to the American Indian is unconscionable. That no one in this country has ever said “We’re sorry” defies both my comprehension and every fibre of my being that thinks about and tries to do what’s right.
In this week’s Torah parashah, Vayetzay, Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder that reached into heaven and which had angels moving up and down its rungs. Jacob’s understanding of the dream was that God was nearby, so Jacob offered to allow God to be his God if Jacob was able to safely return home from the journey upon which he had embarked. This wasn’t exactly Jacob’s most noble moment, although it was somewhat more impressive than his earlier demonstrations of selfishness and arrogance when he sold his starving brother a meal and stole that brother’s blessing from their dying dad.
Sometimes I’m so grateful that my ancestors were being persecuted and pummeled in Eastern Europe while the early American settlers were destroying this land’s indigenous peoples. But my being a descendant of Jacob the Deceiver doesn’t bode much better. The point here, I think, is that we humans bungle life a lot. We hurt and destroy, taking what we desire, with nary a pause to consider the dishonor of our actions.
The great irony of Thanksgiving is that it celebrates a moment in our American past that, even if such a meal really occurred, served as a prequel to a disaster of cruel and epic proportions. It’s just possible that Thanksgiving ought to be called Apologiesgiving, something akin to an American Yom Kippur.
But just as Jacob’s story doesn’t end with his shortcomings, but with a transformation that enables him to reconcile with, and finally offer love to, his brother Esau, and then to father Joseph who would shine as a leader not only of our people, but of the ancient Egyptian people as well … just as Jacob’s story turns to these finer values and better outcomes, so too can the American story, which in places already has.
Racism may not be gone, but America is a whole lot better place to be black than it used to be. Same with sexism and with homophobia too. There’s so much more work to be done, but we’ve made enough progress that we needn’t feel discouraged; we need merely to strengthen our resolve.
True thanks, of course, is not something that’s demonstrated by stuffing our gullets. There’s nothing at all wrong with a symbolic, ritual moment. Goodness knows, I’ve participated in more than a few of those myself. But what’s vital is that our symbolic acts become literal, hands-on endeavors to bring a fuller, more complete justice into our communities.
Ferguson, Missouri, is a moment teaching us that the work of the civil rights movement is not done, that beyond our legal system we still need to integrate values of tolerance and brotherhood into our daily lives. And I think we can do it. When I look at the transformation of this country vis-a-vis same-sex marriage, now legal in 35 states, I am so deeply hopeful. Things do get better. Life can and does improve, even if it sometimes takes a very long time. Always too much time. But we get there, don’t we?
And on this Thanksgiving weekend, that’s worth giving our heartfelt thanks.