Mai Thanksgiving? What is Thanksgiving?

Posted on November 13, 2018 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

If the Talmud had a tractate on the holiday of Thanksgiving, it would likely begin like this: “Mai Thanksgiving?” What is Thanksgiving? What is its meaning? What is its purpose?

So, what is Thanksgiving? Is it merely an opportunity to gather with family and friends to eat too much turkey and stuffing, maybe watch football, or to see the Macy’s parade with its floats and massive balloons march down Broadway?

For many of us, Thanksgiving is much more than just fun and feasting, and even more than the beginning of a shopping spree that leads up to Chanukah and Christmas. It is, in fact, an opportunity to reflect on the blessings in our lives and to express gratitude.

But I would like to suggest that it can be even more than that.

When I was a kid, there was always a Thanksgiving assembly in school. Parents were invited, and the students would act out the story of Thanksgiving. Some played the part of Pilgrims. Others played the part of Native Americans. We would dress in costumes appropriate to our roles and re-enact the story of that first Thanksgiving a Plymouth Plantation in 1621.

I don’t know if such dramas are still enacted today, but I would like to suggest that there was something to them, or at least the potential of something important to them, that may or may not have been realized.

At their best, those plays were an opportunity for the children to stand in the shoes of those who experienced the hardship of being Pilgrims, to imagine being refugees to a foreign shore who barely survived the harsh winter, and who, with the help of the Native Americans, learned to plant and reap a harvest that sustained them.

Our respective religious traditions place a high value on this kind of re-enactment. If I understand correctly, the Christian mass is an example of this. On Passover, we Jews see ourselves “as if” we ourselves were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. We imagine that we personally experienced the hardship and degradation of enslavement, and that we ourselves went forth to freedom.

This is no trivial exercise. The drama of the Seder shapes our identity. It is much more than a mere recollection of what happened once upon a time. It tells us who we are today.

We are people who know the aching heart of the stranger, for we were the stranger. We enter into the experience and relive the bitterness, the harshness, the pain and suffering of enslavement, so that we will stand up and declare, “Never again!” No human being should ever be so mistreated. It is wrong, and we know it to the depths of our hearts and souls.

This is what Thanksgiving could, and I believe should be, for us as Americans, an opportunity to see our selves as those who came here to these shores as Pilgrims, as refugees, and who retell this story to remind us of who we are, and who we want to be.

And who should we aspire to be, if we are to be true to our shared story? We should be people who see the refugees around us and insist on standing for them and with them. We should be people who see the homeless and refuse to make our peace with the reality that even one of God’s children should lack for a roof over their heads, and a place to call home.

We should remember that the first Pilgrims to these shores escaped religious persecution and came here to find a refuge where they could freely practice their faith. And so, to be faithful to that story, we should refuse to accept intolerance or discrimination against any other person on the basis of their religion or creed.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, has spoken of the difference between history and memory. History is the attempt to recover the events of the past as objectively as possible. Memory, on the other hand, is the subjective story we choose to tell about what happened. History is about facts. Memory is about meaning.

Google the story of Thanksgiving and you will find many different versions. The history is complex and can be seen from a variety of perspectives. Believe me, the Native Americans tell quite a different story from the descendants of the Pilgrims. Their story is one of persecution, displacement, and murder, and it is a story that needs and deserves to be heard. As for the Pilgrims, though they escaped religious persecution, they were not themselves the most religiously tolerant people, to put it mildly! This, too, is part of our collective memory.

We each have our subjective memories. We tell different stories. But I hope and pray that the stories we choose to tell, and to pass on to our children, will have at least one important thing in common. May they all be narratives of compassion. May they tell us to see ourselves as loving, caring people whose hearts are open to all God’s children, and who hear ourselves called to bind the wounds of all who suffer, to lift them up, and to endow them with dignity.

May we always be grateful for the blessings God has bestowed upon us, and may we build a world in which all God’s children will share in the bounty that God has given us. Amen!

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

 Editor’s note: This message was first delivered as a sermon for the Interfaith Thanksgiving service at the North Branch Reformed Church in November 2017.


Originally published in the November-December 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.