12. Vayetze I - THANKSGIVING

THE CULINARY TASTES of a nation play an important role in its culture and feelings of group solidarity. This is especially true of the Jews. Ashkenazic Jews relish gefihlte fish and matzo balls, lokshen and stuffed derma. Sephardic Jews are fond of delicacies made of rice and spice. Alas, that with some members of our people these foods constitute the only threads that keep them in the fold.

The trouble with turkey on Thanksgiving is that it sometimes comes in conflict with the laws of kashrut. The other day I overheard a woman say to another, "kosher turkey costs thirty-five cents per pound more than treifa . I always buy kosher meat, but turkey, my God, who can afford it!" And when I said that one can have a fine Thanksgiving dinner with chicken or lamb chops, she looked at me as though I had suggested that she join the Communist Party, or the P.L.O. "What are you saying!" she exclaimed. "Thanksgiving without turkey!"

While it is nice to have family gatherings and turkey dinner on this American festival, I regret to report that many fail in the major observance of the day, namely to offer thanks to a merciful Providence for all the blessings which have been showered upon us.

In answer to the proclamation of the President of the United States and the Governor of the State we take a day off from our regular routine, and, at the dinner table, we lump our feelings of gratitude for the munificence that God has showered upon us into a few minutes of prayer. I think that it would have been a far better idea to set aside one day in the year in which to give vent to our feelings of frusuation and disillusionment, and use the other days in which to bless the Almighty for all the good things in life.

This thought has a particular significance to our people, for the word Jew is an abbreviated form of Judah, which means gratitude. You recall that when the fourth son was born to Leah, she named him Judah, saying, "This time will I thank the Lord. Therefore she called his name Judah" (Gen. 29:35). As citizens of this great land we can be grateful for the peace that we enjoy-- troubled and uneasy peace, to be sure, but peace nevertheless. That none of our young men are fighting on the far-hung battlefields of the world, is sufficient cause for gratitude to God.

Furthermore, as Americans we ought to be thankful for living in this land of freedom and opportunity, where an ordinary citizen can criticize even the President of the country, and in concert with other citizens can pressure him to give an accounting of his conduct. This is truly democracy in action, and we ought to thank God for it.

In a Sunday School, a reacher asked the class, "How many children would like to go to heaven?" All hands went up, except the hand of one little boy. The teacher then asked, "And how many children would like to go to the other place?" Not one hand went up. So the teacher turned to the little boy who didn't raise his hand in answer to either of the questions, and said to him, "Jackie, don't you want to go anywhere," "No," replied the boy.''I like it right here!" Yes, we like it here, and on Thanksgiving we ought to express our feelings of gratitude for this heavenly place.

As Jews we recall the first small band of our coreligionists who came here, organized a synagogue, Shearith Israel, known also as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, which continues to flourish in New York City to this day. It is noteworthy that this, the oldest congregation on the North American continent, has remained a citadel of Orthodox Judaism to this day.

We are grateful to America for having accepted the Jew, his religion and culture on a basis of equality and for assuring the survival of the State of Israel in the face of almost universal opposition.

The motive for Thanksgiving is summed up for us in the following Talmudic passage: "The following four have to offer thanks to the Almighty. He who crossed the sea in safety; he who completed a journey through the wilderness; he who was liberated from imprisonment; and he who recovered from serious illness" (Berachot 54b).

First and foremost, we are grateful for the yordei hayam , for those first pioneers of our people who at the risk of their own lives, crossed the vast ocean in quest of freedom. In those days such a voyage was fraught with danger. It demanded hardihood and courage on the part of those people to strike out for the New World. It also took great perseverance and devotion to principle for them to remain faithful to the tenets of Judaism. As a result of those qualities we are here to enjoy the heritage of freedom.

We are also thankful for the yordei midbariot , for those sturdy men and women who have helped make of the American wilderness a garden of delight. There isn't an industry, there isn't a worthwhile enterprise, whether in the arts or the sciences, in which our people haven't made a sizable contribution of energy and talent.

We are thankful for the chavush be'bet hoassurim , for the many captives of our people who found a refuge in this land. As a result of the pioneering work of those early comers, wave after wave of Jewish immigrants found shelter and a new life in America. First came the Sephardic Jews who escaped from the clutches of the Inquisition. Next came the German Jews who were, in the main, political refugees. Then came the East European Jews who escaped from the pogroms organized by the Czars. They came from Russia and Poland, from Romania and Lithuania, and in the last decade they came from all over. Alas, that too few of them were saved from the bloody hands of Hitler to reach these blessed shores!

We now come to the last of the four causes for thanksgiving as outlined in the Talmud-- mi shehaya choleh venitrapei , for recovery from serious illness. All the unspeakable horror and mental anguish, all the sorrow and stark tragedy, all the cruelty and bloody carnage that we were made to endure, were the symptoms of the moral aberrations, the spiritual malady and decadence of the world in which we lived. It was a sick world, infected with the virus of religious bigotry, racial hatred and extreme national chauvinism. And while it is true that the world still needs plenty of prayers before it will be completely healthy, there is the hope that some day it will recover.

Let us thank God, and pray for many more years of Jewish living in this "land of the free and the home of the brave."

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