A sermon by Rabbi Adam Roffman
Among the tales in the Roffman family lore is a story about my brother who, when he was very young, before I was born, went out to eat one night with my parents. It was February and the restaurant had been releasing, a week at a time, commemorative plates featuring the faces of the great American presidents. That week, they honored our 16th president, drawn, as usual, in his impressively tall top hat.
“Do you know who that is?” my parents asked my brother.
“Yes!” he answered. “That’s Abraham Lincoln! He freed the slabes!”
No, that’s not a typo. S-l-a-b-e-s. Slabes.
And then he said: “And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!”
I think of that story often this time of year, as I reflect on the meaning of a holiday that holds great significance for American Jews. After all, we have a lot to be thankful for, living in the greatest diaspora community in the history of our people, afforded the rights and privileges denied to us for so many years.
And yet, because we are taught that expressing our gratitude through prayer and ritual is one of the fundamental tasks of daily Jewish life, it seems a little odd that we should celebrate that gratitude on any one day of the year. Is there something more to the nature of this holiday that might help us understand why this day of thanks is, as we say, different from all other days of thanksgiving? And is that “something” also reflected in our tradition?
Turns out—the answer is yes.
One of the most famous symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. We’ve all seen pictures, no doubt, of the basket with a narrow opening that leads to a widening passage filled with the fruits of the season, gourds and grains that are so abundant they spill out of the end of the horn.
As I reread the account of the story of the first Thanksgiving, I realized why both ends of the horn have something to teach us about why those Pilgrims and Puritans were so grateful in 1621.
In his account of those difficult first few years off of Massachusetts Bay, Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford writes:
“The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”
The Englishmen who arrived on these shores were expecting something very different from what they found—a land of plenty, with ample resources to build and sustain a growing colony that would generate wealth and prosperity. Instead, they encountered harsh winters, disease, and famine. It wasn’t until the Native-American Squanto taught them how to grow corn that the land delivered on its promise and devastating hunger was replaced overwhelming gratitude at the abundance that now adorned their very full tables.
Like the horn of plenty, those who experienced that first Thanksgiving had known both a narrow, difficult beginning, and a seemingly infinite and expansive present and future now that the vastness and potential of the American landscape was revealed to them. This potential led them and their descendants to spread out as far as their ambition, hard work, and sacrifice could take them, filling their bellies and their pocketbooks with the rewards of the richness of this country.
And yet, we know that the widening of their enterprise came at a great cost for those who had lived for generations on that same land. Eventually, when you spread out as far as you can go, either you will run out of room or you will have to dispossess others of what they own in order to satisfy your own appetite.
We Jews also know a great deal about the challenges of moving from scarcity to abundance, from the narrowness of the meitzar (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt), to the blessings of a land filled with milk and honey.
In last week’s parasha, Toldot, our patriarch Isaac also runs into some trouble when he tries to expand his territory. In the unfriendly confines of the territory of the Philistines, the wells which were rightly his, an inheritance from Isaac’s father who dug them, were stopped up. Isaac successfully reopens them, but when he finds new source of mayim hayim, living waters, the locals challenge his right to this most precious resource in the arid land of Canaan.
Eventually, Isaac manages to wrestle away a well of his very own—one he names, appropriately, with gratitude to God, Rehovot, the wide-open spaces.
Still, if our sense of gratitude is dependent on our ability to constantly expand outward, to possess more and more, what happens when that isn’t possible or isn’t ethical? If we are only able to say “thank you” when we have more, how will we maintain our gratitude to God when we, inevitably, have less?
One of the rabbinic teachings frequently mentioned this time of year comes from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion.” Rabbi Jonah Gerundi explains further:
“Anyone who is not happy with his lot and is not satisfied with what God, may He be blessed, gave him is a poor person; as it is explained in the verse (Proverbs 15:15), "All the days of a poor man are bad, but one with a good heart has a constant feast." This teaches that all the days of a 'poor man,’ one who desires only money are bad, for ‘a lover of money never has his fill of money': but all the days of the one with a good heart, who is happy with his lot, are good [as the one] one who makes a constant feast.”
Gerundi ingeniously understands the terms “rich” and “poor” to be not indicative of the balance of one’s bank account, or the size of one’s home, or the breadth of one’s holdings, but of the condition of one’s spirit.
If all we desire is to “widen” what we already have, if that is the only thing that gives us satisfaction, then we do not understand the meaning of the word gratitude. If, on the other hand, we can learn to temper our desire to constantly expand, or use that desire to do good for others, those whose lot is still narrow, then we will truly be able to share in a Thanksgiving that is both authentically American and unmistakably Jewish.
I enjoy reading your remarks, as well as Shira's, i remember you both as prominent students at jts and very well liked in community. Keep up excellent writing, it is.educational, insightful, and i can envision myself in some of anecdotes as i had similar life experiences.
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