Thanksgiving: Endless gratitude and much needed repair

D’var Torah
Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
November 24, 2017 // 7 Kislev 5778
Thanksgiving: Endless gratitude and much needed repair

As a relative newcomer to the tradition of American Thanksgiving,
a Canadian on foreign soil for 10 years now,
I have seen how American Thanksgiving
is a time where,
in spite of often religious and political and personal divides,
families come together across the country in this time
to reflect on what we are thankful for.
I am so thankful for the food eaten
and company shared over a delicious meal last night,
and I look forward to the same tonight after our service.

This year, as in all years, I am also thankful for my family and friends.
I am thankful for the secure life I am able to live,
as secure a life as anyone can possibly have.
I am thankful for the abundance that surrounds me,
G-d given inherited luck.
I am acutely aware that the abundance I experience
is a blessing that is rooted in the fact that my family, my own flesh and blood,
were able to flee the tyranny across the great ocean,
to land here in North America on new soil.
There is no end to the gratitude.

Yet this year in the U.S. has been a year of exposure,
where untold stories have come into greater light.
This ought to be true of Thanksgiving too.
Thus even with this sense of limitless gratitude,
my heart cannot leave go of the story
of those who were living here
well before my own people arrived on these shores.
My heart cannot leave go of the relatively untold story of Thanksgiving,
the perspective of the First Nations,
the Native Americans who are indigenous to this land.

Everyone here knows the story of how European whites came to the U.S.
and didn’t know how to survive on this land,
so, we are told, the Natives helped them out,
and then together they celebrated with a meal.

“The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America
from Plymouth, England, in 1620,
and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Mass.,
where they set up a colony.
In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest
with a three-day gathering that was attended
by members of the Wampanoag tribe.
It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it.”
(New York Times, Maya Salam, November 21, 2017)

In one article in the Los Angeles Times, Tommy Orange,
a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma,
and a teacher at the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts,
wrote the following:
“There was one meal in 1621.
In 1622, the Indian Wars began.
(Then) Native people were systematically erased through genocidal policy.”

He goes on to quote Col. John Chivington at Sand Creek:
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!
I have come to kill Indians,
and believe it is right and honorable to use any means
under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”
Chivington is but one of many historical perpetrators
who spilled blood in this land.

Mahtowin Munro, a co-leader of
the United American Indians of New England,
says that “her objection to Thanksgiving
(is because of the) ‘cultural whitewashing’…
She said most people are taught a ‘fantasy history’
that ignores or downplays the widespread slaughter of her people
and the theft of their traditional lands,
the damming of their rivers, and the deliberate slaughter of bison.

“As indigenous people,
we’ve been taught by our elders to give thanks every day,” she said.
“We are a people who have survived genocide.
People able to gather with our families is very important to us.”

Acknowledging these atrocities,
our own Jewish holidays
might help shine a light on how we can move forward
celebrating a landmark national holiday with undiminished gratitude,
while also acknowledging the difficult truths that diminish some of the joy.

On more than one occasion,
American Jews have remarked to me
that Thanksgiving is quite similar to Passover,
a feast with the greatest pull
for family to come together despite great distances
to sit around a home cooked meal with ritual foods.

Passover too is not without its complicated storyline.
Each year we take 10 drops of wine out of our cups
to signify the 10 drops of blood,
not because of our own people’s spilled blood,
but because of the blood of the Egyptians that was spilled.
Though we continue to celebrate our freedom from slavery,
we acknowledge the shadow upon our celebration
of the scores of deaths at the hands of the plagues,
especially the final plague, the death of their firstborn sons.
Even in our celebration,
we do not seek to celebrate at another people’s expense.

Holidays are always meant to pull us together around our best values.
This is equally as true of the value of celebrating with family and friends
as it is with the value of confronting some of our hardest truths.
Our tradition teaches us that
we are never meant to celebrate on the backs of another people,
and that even as we celebrate, our own joy might be diminished.

When we acknowledge the full breadth
of the historical account of Thanksgiving,
we must acknowledge the genocide of a people and its long-standing affects.
Thus we acknowledge the rights
of those Water Protectors at Standing Rock and across North America
to protect their land from oil spills and Climate Change,
as they live out their traditions to care for the Earth.
We take a moment to acknowledge
that 1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty,
and that Native American women
still have the highest rates of rape and assault in the U.S.
We acknowledge the fact that Native Americans
are incarcerated at a rate of 38% higher than the national average in the U.S.
And lest we somehow think that Canada is some bastion of enlightenment,
Canada’s own early and systematically rooted policies against First Nations
has led to the present moment where the indigenous incarceration rate
is 10 times higher than its non-Indigenous rate.

So when we celebrate Thanksgiving together,
what might it look like to ritually stop to acknowledge
the effects of genocide that continue to pervade our society?
How might we mark our diminished joy in light of these truth?
Might we take a moment of silence at our meals?
Or perhaps spill some drops of wine on our plates?
Or maybe could take some time to learn about a cause
dear to First Nations people?
Or might we make a donation each year
to a cause that would help empower Indigenous community-building?
And that is just the beginning. What else might we do?

This line of questioning
as well as a genuine curiosity and sense of interconnection to Native tradition
led Alison and me and the kids
to the annual Nulhegan Abenaki Heritage Gathering about a year ago.
There the Abenaki tribe congregated
and welcomed others among the greater community
to join them in food and festivities for the day.
We saw their beautiful craft-making;
we danced traditional Abenaki folk dances to the beat of their drums;
and we explored their awe-inspiring camp ground.
I introduced myself to their Chief as the Rabbi of JCOGS,
seeking out relationship and connection.
Before we left, the Chief led the people in a song
that had been passed down for centuries.
They sang in our honour a song about Yahweh, Y-H-V-H,
what we know as Adonai.

Recently, I reached out to the Abenaki tribe in the hopes of
continuing to cultivate a connection with them.
I seek to build bridges and develop relationships.
I also, in part, reach out to help figure out the question of
what we can do to repair a broken history.

Of course, it was not my ancestors —
it was none of our Jewish ancestors —
who were directly involved in the genocide of their people.
Yet, we have often been complicit.
We have often celebrated without really knowing their story better.
We have often shied away
from addressing the genuine needs of the Indigenous people.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan was the first Jew
to include formal prayers for Thanksgiving in his groundbreaking Siddur.
In that prayer service, he quotes Abraham Lincoln:
“With malice towards none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as G-d gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in….
We here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain….”

No, let us not let the dead, the murdered, die in vain.
Let us acknowledge and repair the damage done.
Let us do our part to lift up First Nations people.
And in our limitless gratitude for life,
may we yet come to some sense of diminished joy
so that we not celebrate on the backs of others.