Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When Abraham Lincoln set forth his proclamation in 1863 fixing a national day of Thanksgiving he evoked the images of a nation so blessed with bountiful harvests that we are “prone to forget the source from which they come.” Of course, 1863 was still the heart of a devastating civil war which would eventually bring about the emancipation of those enslaved, as Lincoln had proclaimed earlier in that same year. Lincoln was explicit about the connection between the renewal of the Thanksgiving tradition and the ordeal being faced by the nation:
I … commend to [G*d’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union
Lincoln knew that not every American shared equally the bounties with which the country was blessed. However, humble gratitude for one’s fortune was a way for those with plenty to recognize their privilege and those who faced hardships to find strength, solace and healing.
The deep well from which Lincoln drew, as did Washington before him, is the Book of Deuteronomy that enjoined the Israelites to make their days of feasting and rejoicing occasions for words of blessing and deeds of thanksgiving. One verse in particular captures the powerful way in which this day marks both the privilege of what we receive and the responsibility for what we are able to give. Deuteronomy 16:16 discussing the three pilgrimage festivals states that none shall appear empty handed but rather “every man according to his hand’s gifts (matnat yado) and according to the blessing of ADONAI (birkat YHVH) which has been given” This verse is like the kind of reversible picture where a duck becomes a rabbit or a cup becomes two faces. One on hand the “hand’s gifts” and “blessing of ADONAI” could refer to that which is given into our hands and the blessing given by G*d. However, they could also mean each Israelite man should appear according with the gift given by his hand as a way of offering blessing to G*d. In fact, it is both at the very same time.
To not “appear empty-handed” is not about the quantity or even the quality of what he have. It is to know that to have what for which to give thanks is a privilege. And to have privilege is a serious responsibility. The privilege of taking this time of reflection, enjoyment, and gratitude for the fruits of our freedom leads to the responsibility to make sure that the harvest of these fruits reaches all. The privilege, especially as Jews, to live in a country that has vouchsafed our freedom of religion, protected our rights as minorities, and allowed us full access to all that America has to offer leads to the responsibility never to forget what happens when individuals are denied these opportunities.
May we be inspired in our work of thanksgiving with the gifts of our hands and according to our blessings.
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