For the past few years, I have looked at our American civic holidays with an increasingly Jewish lens. My soul and my stomach are no longer satiated by apple pie on the 4th of July or Turkey on Thanksgiving. I need something more on these American High Holy Days. A Jewish Thanksgiving should be more than dressing a bird and putting a proverbial kippah on the bird. A Jewish Thanksgiving ought to be accompanied by mindful acts and words that reflect our Jewish and our American identities. If we truly believe the words of the V’ahavta: to live our Judaism at all times, with all our mind, all our might, and all our soul, then these holidays beg for our Jewish innovation. Surely, Thanksgiving is about gratitude, but a Jewish Thanksgiving must also have tzedakah, and this year, Pikuach Nefesh.
Judaism holds the words we speak in the highest regard. As our Creation narrative goes, the universe was created through God’s words. However, words are not enough when it comes to helping our fellow human beings. At a Jewish Thanksgiving, we ought to take action to help our neighbors or those in our communities who have little during these times. We may choose to donate food, winter clothing, or money to those in need. Any of those options are fine acts of tzedakah (in fact you can donate food and coats at TE this Saturday at 4:00 pm), but a Thanksgiving feast without tzedakah is like a Yom Kippur fast without the same. Feast or fast, our holiest times only become so when we help those in need.
Perhaps more than tzedakah, this year, Jewish Thanksgiving must fulfill the mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh, “saving a life.” Judaism has no higher obligation or duty than saving our lives or protecting the lives of others. While tzedakah goes a long way to appreciate and improve our lives and the lives of those in our community, pikuach nefesh tops them all. Our actions this Thanksgiving must preserve life, not cut it down. How we choose to celebrate this holiday (or not) may allow us to celebrate many more Thanksgivings as a family. I truly believe these are critical times, that a large Thanksgiving gathering, could, God forbid, lead to funerals by Chanukah or the secular new year. In halakha, Jewish law, we are permitted to violate Shabbat to save a life (ours or another). One of the reasons given in rabbinic literature is that violating one Shabbat will allow us to observe many, many more. Along the same lines, let us have a subdued and safe Thanksgiving so that we may celebrate many more as a family.
Every day is an opportunity to live Jewishly, all the more so in these times and during these civic holidays. May our observance of this Thanksgiving lead us to greater acts of tzedakah and the preservation of life for years to come.