(If you want to know why, read our article, Chanukah and Thanksgiving: A Brief History.)
There’s got to be some connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah, something that’s speaking to us especially this year. Why? Because theBaal Shem Tov taught us that everything a person sees or hears is meant to be a lesson in life. So, when something as striking as a convergence of celebrations comes up, we need to figure out what it’s telling us.
The Wrong Match?
Actually, if you’re looking for a Jewish thanksgiving, it’s Sukkot. Sukkot is the original Biblical Thanksgiving. The Torah calls it The Festival of Ingathering—in other words, when all the crops, fruits included, have been gathered in. At that point, we gather for seven days to show our thankfulness. After we left Egypt, Sukkot also became a festival to celebrate the divine protection we enjoyed for forty years in the wilderness. And that protection continues to this day.
Sukkot never coincides with Thanksgiving. That’s a good thing. On Sukkot, we sit outdoors in a makeshift hut—not necessarily the way you would want to end November if you lived in, say, Portland, Maine.
But here we have Chanukah lining up with Thanksgiving. And when you think about it, Thanksgiving has more to do with Chanukah than any other holiday.
Beyond Corn & Watermelons
Thanksgiving is not your typical harvest festival. It’s about more than bumper crops and giant watermelons. Thanksgiving comes packed with a deep narrative—what Peter Gomes calls the “American sense of mythic past.1” It’s a narrative about an arduous journey to escape religious persecution for freedom in a new land, the establishment of a democratic charter and the sense of Divine providence that carried those refugees through their plight.
That’s Chanukah, as well: a narrative deeply embedded in the collective Jewish psyche of how we fought back against religious oppression in our own land, earned our freedom and thanked G‑d for the miracles.
In America, most holidays have lost their original significance for most people. With Thanksgiving, that may not yet be the case. Americans still act as though they identify with the plight of those Pilgrims. Most of us, after all, are descendants of those who fled to this side of the planet seeking a new future unbridled by the oppressive restrictions of the old world. And when we think of America, we still think of a land of promise and liberty.
The Thanksgiving Mantra
So Chanukah and Thanksgiving are deeply connected, and that connection can be summed up in just four words, “Thank G‑d, we’re free.”
Why are those words important? Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a religious holiday. But please tell me, who are Americans thanking? The turkey?
So what’s so important about thanking G‑d?
Because it’s at that point that you become truly free of religious oppression.
That may sound strange. Hold on.
Liberty from the Boogeyman
Let’s say you can’t get yourself to say those words, not because you do not feel free, but because you claim to not believe in G‑d—at least, not one that can be thanked? What if you think that such belief is irrational, primitive and unscientific?
Then you need to ask yourself if you are still carrying the Pilgrims’ boogeyman of the Church of England, if Diderot is still screaming in your ear that “men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” and if the collusion of church and state is looming in your mind as though King Louis XIV and Czar Nicholas I came along on the Mayflower.
It’s hard to find a real atheist. Deep in the human consciousness lies a belief in a G‑d that cares. Deep—yet close enough that it will emerge in a crunch. In a typical conversation with an atheist, scratch the surface and you’ll find that a caring G‑d is not the real issue. The fear of an oppressive church and “organized religion” hijacking democracy is the real boogeyman.
But there is no boogeyman. We’ve left that behind. We are free. So it’s okay to thank G‑d. And it’s extremely liberating.
It’s liberating, because that’s the foundation upon which liberty is built.
The Stuff the World (and America) is Made Of
Let’s face it: America wouldn’t have been possible if no one thought that G‑d cares. If there weren’t people who believed that the state of humanity is of cosmic significance, that there was nothing that touched more closely the very core of existence than the way one human being treats another, then all that we call social progress could never have happened.
Thanking G‑d means you feel an affinity with whatever it is you believe is behind this whole existence. You feel there’s some sort of interaction going on here. You feel that this super-being, this transcendental oneness—as strange as it may sound, actually cares.
Which is a powerful statement. It says that caring doesn’t just make the world go ’round—caring is the reason it’s here to begin with. More than that: Caring is the stuff this world is made of, as the psalm goes, “the world is built of kindness.”
I’ve written before that if the leaders of the environmental movement would embrace those sacred root-values of American culture, presenting us as the appointed stewards over a G‑d-given planet, they would finally find their way into the hearts of the people. The same applies to those struggling to bring peace in distant places, those fighting crime and injustice in not-so-distant places, and those bringing compassion and values to corporate America. Belief makes change. Belief in a G‑d that cares makes lasting change for lasting good.
Free At Last
Hi, America, I’m Thanksgiving.
And I’m also Chanukah.
Hold my hand.
Take a deep breath.
Now say, “Thank G‑d, we’re free.”
Doesn’t that feel good?Sources Inspired by a talk of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on December 21, 1986.
By Tzvi Freeman