I truly enjoy Thanksgiving. It is so American and so Jewish at the same time. The turkey, the pumpkin pie and the incipient American spirit of self-reliance dressed in pilgrim costumes are all red-white-and-blue images.
But the idea of leaving one’s birthplace, the land of one’s ancestors, and going to a new land, bolstered by an irreplaceable optimism about the human potential to build a new and better world, is straight from the Torah.
Take a moment and read about Noah, the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. Each experienced a summons to the awesome task to build a new and better world.
Noah responded to the imperative command “Get yourself out of the ark.”
Abraham responded to the imperative command “Get yourself out of the country and from your father’s house.”
Every one of the biblical figures responded to a divine imperative that, in short, compelled them to labor for a new and better world. They were the heroes and repairers of a damaged human drama. They dreamed of ladders to heaven, with each rung a step forward on behalf of equity, freedom and human dignity.
No less the stalwart pioneers of former years came to view this new shore for precisely the same purpose. The Old World of strife and bigotry, of failed hopes and stifled dreams, was abandoned.
Families uprooted themselves despite great trepidation to grasp for a different destiny. They came to America because they believed in the capacity of human intelligence and imagination to illumine life with Israel’s ancient promise: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all inhabitants thereof.”
For me, a teacher of Jewish tradition, this means that America has a responsibility toward social justice. And I believe that this responsibility, shared with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world) and the command “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice shall you pursue), makes Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday.
We rejoice gratefully for the abundance of this great land, but we must also hear the divine summons to take responsibility. That is what America, at its best, is all about: a place to heal and repair a damaged world.
Thanksgiving is a compelling summons to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless. Yes, we have known times when our resources, both human and natural, have been exploited. But that is not what we are about.
We are meant to be a beacon of justice and freedom, not a second place of failed hopes and stifled dreams. That was the Old World. We are in the new.
As we observe our Thanksgiving Day, may our hearts pound joyously with the images and ideals bequeathed by pilgrims’ pride and biblical literalism. May we live up to the ideals from which we were born. And, as we enter the twilight of one year and the dawn of the next, may our example be one of kindness, of generosity, of hope.
This column is part of a weekly series by members of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.