At your Thanksgiving celebration, there will be much conversation about food and other pleasant topics. But as with Jewish holidays, the meal we enjoy together is intended to impart a sense of identity, spirituality, and moral responsibility. That is to say, around the table we are invited to recall our history, our values and our blessings. Although you may want to avoid talking about politics, it would be a wasted opportunity if there wasn’t some meaningful, even provocative, conversation. Here are some suggestions on how to get that going:
Thanksgiving is ostensibly about the Pilgrims and their arrival in the New World, but their journey was only one of many. There were indigenous groups who found their way to America as well as countless immigrants, refugees, slaves, wanderers and Dreamers. Most of those journeys were not easy. Thanksgiving is a good time to remember that all those journeys bind us and unite us, giving us a common story and common roots as Americans. So here’s a conversation starter for this Thanksgiving dinner: “Since we all have a journey story, tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”
From our Passover Seders we know that asking questions can help steer the conversation to meaningful and relevant topics. Here then are four questions for Thanksgiving (written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins) designed to touch on current issues without igniting political arguments:
1) We are thankful for the earth’s bounty, but concerned about risks to its ecosystems. What is our responsibility as stewards of the environment?
2) We are grateful for the bounty of our holiday table, but mindful of the food insecurity experienced by many Americans. What is our responsibility to feed the hungry?
3) We are thankful for our nation’s democratic values and institutions, but concerned about threats to the freedom of conscience and its expression. What is our responsibility to safeguard “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
4) We are thankful for the diversity of America, a nation of native peoples and immigrants from across the globe, but concerned about escalating rhetoric that threatens minorities. What is our responsibility toward the stranger in our midst?
Whereas Christmas, Chanukah, Easter and Passover all have particular theological messages, Thanksgiving conveys a message that religious and secular people alike can appreciate: “It’s good to give thanks.” Too often, the occasion can turn into just another family gathering when food and football become the focus. It’s possible, however, to elevate the mundane to the sublime by saying or reading something at the table to remind us of our shared aspirations. Reading a Psalm, for example, can help give expression to gratitude for the miracle of life, uncertainty about the future, and our ongoing quest for faith, compassion and goodness. Psalms 28, 30, 100, 111, 118, 150 are all good choices, or you might prefer a contemporary reading, like this “Thanksgiving Prayer” by Rabbi Naomi Levy:
“For the laughter of the children, for my own life breath, for the abundance of food on this table, for the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast, for the roof over our heads, the clothes on our backs, for our health, and our wealth of blessings; For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends, for the freedom to pray these words without fear, in any language, in any faith, in this great country, whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants; Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.” (From Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration)
I hope and pray that you find ways to make your Thanksgiving celebration a joyous and meaningful one, as we call to mind our history, our values and our blessings.
R’ Moshe Tom