Reclaiming Thanksgiving

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 12, 2021 / 8 Kislev 5782

Summary: I will be taking Wednesday and Thursday off next week off, so Oasis Songs will resume the following week. Given that, I wanted to provide some thoughts on family, expectations, and societal stress as we approach Thanksgiving. Particularly in a time when many people want to reject the holiday because of its racist history, how can we still find all that is good and positive in Thanksgiving? Is there a way to reclaim Thanksgiving for those who struggle with its origins? I think there is.

Reading Time: Five minutes

We’ve all heard the phrase, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The meaning is clear. If we hold out for perfection, not only will we miss a lot of good, but we will also sabotage the good and end up with neither the good nor the perfect. Our Sages put it this way: “Tafasta merubah, lo tafasta—if you try to grab hold of too much, you will end up holding nothing.” There’s plenty of wisdom to be found there. Starting the journey counts. Compromise matters. We don’t need to get all the way “there” to have done some good. “Lo alekha ham’lkha ligmor-we don’t need to finish the work,” but we should aim for a little progress.

This is an important concept, for without it, life becomes a rather bitter affair. If perfection is our goal, it’s hard to experience gratitude. Gratitude requires that we find the blessing in what is, right now, just as it is. That’s not always easy, and when the holidays approach, the added stress can make it harder to navigate and see what is good.

There’s something to be said for adjusting some of our expectations down. I don’t know whether it’s the ever-present manicured social media presentations, late capitalism offering us salvation through shiny, perfect things, or if we’ve always been disappointed because we maintain unrealistic standards for ourselves and others. There’s a profound statement based on a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, “Ha-pogem et atzmo pogem mishpachto imo. People who harm themselves also end up harming their families” Unrealistic expectations are a form of self-harm. There’s always bleed-over, particularly during the holidays when those expectations collide with stress and unresolved family issues. Standards matter and expectations poison our receptiveness to the good we receive.

So yes, we have all been guilty of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Let me elaborate. An overarching theme of the Book of Genesis is the formation and breakdown of families. Adam and Eve find one another in a world empty of people and start a family. Yet they blame one another, end up exiled from the Garden, and are confronted with one child who kills another. Abraham and Sarah desire to start a family but are unable to conceive, so they bring in Hagar as a surrogate. It doesn’t end well. Hagar and Ishmael are expelled once Isaac is brought into the fold. Yet this hardly is idyllic, for before long, Abraham comes awfully close to sacrificing Isaac. Isaac replays this pain with Rivkah as each chooses a favorite child. Unsurprisingly, Jacob and Esau fight and squabble; as a result, Jacob runs for safety, settling in with his Uncle Laban in this week’s Torah reading. There he starts a family on a pedestal of jealousy upon which the two sister-wives will never be at ease with one another. Jacob’s children mimic the dysfunctional model they received by selling Joseph into slavery, harboring recriminations among each other for their actions.

This is the family that is meant to become a nation, even an or la’goyim, a light unto nations? Really! Yes. And a history of Jewish contribution to the common good is evidence that it will only ever be imperfect people, families, and nations who can make contributions. Who else is there? Tradition says that there are only ever 36 fully righteous people alive at any given moment. Let that sink in. The rest of us muddle along, doing the best we know how at any given moment. I think the Torah wants us to stare deeply at human imperfection without it dismantling our faith or capacity to see the good which always arises out of brokenness. The medieval Kabbalists provide us with a powerful image when they speak of klippot—husks of darkness that cover the sparks of holiness within. If we deny the klippot because they embody what we fear rather than accept their presence, we also lose the power of transformation which lies within.

It is not just in families that we allow the imperfect to be the enemy of the good. We erase imperfect leaders, teachers, heck, even holidays. There’s a cohort of Americans who don’t have much use for Thanksgiving because all they can see in it is the colonial imprint of America and the victimization and massacre of so many First Nation American peoples. I get that, but maybe an imperfect holiday of gratitude is exactly what we need to be celebrating because if we wait for perfection, no holiday would ever be possible.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. offered us a way to put this all in perspective with his famous phrase of the “promissory note” of freedom and equality that America owes to African Americans. This “note” was partially redeemed in some measure by the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship to them. There’s always been a tension between America’s slave origins and its commitment to freedom. If we look only at the racist origins and not the promissory note that accompanies it, we leave the husk intact. The light never gets out. America has always been a land of freedom, but that’s not all it has been. Let’s set aside our positive and negative myths about this remarkable, conflicted country. Let’s find a way to celebrate all that is good in her, and to seek gratitude for the blessings of right now.

And while we are at it, let’s also cut our imperfect families and selves a little slack. May the upcoming holiday week be a source of light and blessing for us all. May we manage the stress that accompanies it with grace.

Hodu l’Ado-nai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo. Let’s give thanks to God for God’s perpetual kindness,”

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How did you celebrate Thanksgiving growing up? How do you observe it now?/li>
  2. What is your personal connection between expectation and gratitude? Do you feel like the two are in a healthy balance?/li>
  3. Do you experience the holidays as stressful? If so, how do you manage that stress?/li>
  4. Will your celebration be different this year or more like a pre-pandemic experience?/li>
  5. Using the symbol of the klippot or husks, do you move toward discomfort or away? How do you approach the darker sides of yourself, your family, and your nation?/li>

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