A Jewish Survival Guide For Your Thanksgiving Meal

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Guess Who’s Coming to Thanksgiving Dinner?

It is 2019, will this Thanksgiving be different than other Thanksgivings?

What will you talk about, as you welcome in your uncle comes to the table with his red Make America Great Again hat, or your aunt with her ‘pink’ hat from the Women’s March?  Or imagine if you invited your cousin Stephen Miller, your uncle Bernie Sanders, and your brother Lt. Col. Vindman, to sit together at your Thanksgiving meal.  How would this be possible? 

Will you have a rule, no topic beginning with ‘I’?

Immigration?

Income inequality?

Israel? 

Dare I say it, ‘Impeachment’? 

I’m sure your spouse will tell you to avoid those topics – so what should you talk about?

And that’s the problem isn’t it?  How can we speak about anything nowadays without fighting or screaming at each other?  Families are divided more now than ever, or so it seems. 

Perhaps this holiday, Thanksgiving, is here at the perfect time for us.  In a week, we will be less than a year from what probably will be the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history.  In a way, the countdown begins as we sit with our Turkeys or Tofurkeys for our Vegan friends.

I’m here to give you some Jewish tips on how to make your Thanksgiving meal a little bit less exciting, and that you walk away as one big happy family. 

Today, I want to share the following with you:

How Abraham grew in how he dealt with people with whom he disagreed with

And the true story of Thanksgiving

First, let’s talk about Abraham.  When we think of Abraham, we often think of the man of faith, the father of our people, the man who walked more than he talked, but that wasn’t always the case.  Think back to Abraham and the stories from the midrash and Genesis.  Abraham argues with his father when he breaks all of his father’s idols and challenges his father – why do you believe in these lifeless idols when you know they aren’t God?  Abraham argues with God when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gemorah:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע׃

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

Wow, that takes some courage! 

But I wanted to focus on one incident that doesn’t get a lot of attention – Abraham’s relationship with Lot.  In Lech Lecha, chapter 13, we read that Abraham and Lot have a problem.  They both became wealthy, and the land they were couldn’t support them both.  The Torah says,

וְלֹא־נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו כִּי־הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו׃

The land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.

Their herdsmen started fighting, and Avram says to Lot:

אַל־נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ וּבֵין רֹעַי וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ כִּי־אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ׃

Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.

הֲלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי אִם־הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה׃

Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

He acknowledges, we are brothers, so rather than fight, let’s just go our separate ways.  It is an interesting way of dealing with conflict – in order to save the relationship, we have to separate. 

But that doesn’t really work for Avram and Lot, because Lot gets in trouble, and Avram saves him, just like a loving uncle would do.  The text mentions, at that point, where Lot chooses to live: 

“Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward.

וַיִּפָּרְדוּ אִישׁ מֵעַל אָחִיו׃

Thus they parted from each other;”

I think the Torah mentions this for a reason.  Imagine if they didn’t separate, imagine if they could have worked things out, then Lot and his family would never have gone to Sodom and Gemorah in the first place. 

Abraham and Lot is a story that we know all too well:  we disagree so vehemently that cannot be together, so in order to save our relationship, we need to separate.  I know, it sounds like an oxymoron – to save our relationship, we can’t have one. 

This brings me to the next story of division, the true story of Thanksgiving.  First, let me state the obvious, America was not always so united, and in fact, we fought a Civil War, South versus North, which led to the deaths of an estimated 750,000 American service members, more than any war in U.S. history.  The war, which began in 1861, was brought on by decades of discord between the North and the South.  Both sides even had different views of the Thanksgiving story: the North  said our national origin was at Plymouth Rock as the Puritans and the Native Americans came together, but the South pointed to the story of Pocahontas and John Smith at Jamestown which predated the Pilgrims by ten years, in Virginia. 

How can we come together if we cannot even agree on facts? 

Here is where another famous Abraham can give us some guidance.

Honor Sachs, Assistant Professor of History at West Carolina University wrote, “In 1863, during the depths of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to establish the first national day of Thanksgiving. He called on his “fellow-citizens in every part of the United States” to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” Lincoln’s proclamation made no mention of Pilgrims or Indians. He did not mention North or South nor did he speak of founding fathers or national origins. Rather, Lincoln called attention to our desperate need for collective healing. Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” that the nation faced. He called for a day in which we might sit down and work to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

As I think about the state of our Union, which is certainly divided, but not as divided as it was in 1863, perhaps this spirit is needed more than the Northern or Southern origin story for America.  So how do we heal?  Perhaps it begins at our dinner tables. 

In parashat Chayyei Sarah in the book of Genesis, Abraham has loses his wife Sarah, and now he must bury her.  The promises that God made to Abraham are still not fully realized.  He has a son, Isaac, but no guarantee that Isaac will have children, and he still does not have the land he was promised.  Abraham begins his journey to realize his destiny with a conversation with the Hittites.  This is how he begins the conversation:

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת־קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי׃

“I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

He could have said, “God promised me this land, so I’m taking it.”  He could have asked God to take the land from these Hitities.  He could have said, “these idolators are beneath me, their very lifestyle disgusts me, why should I talk with them?”  But he doesn’t do that, rather, he says, I’m a stranger here, I need to learn from you before I can have a seat at the table.” 

They do not agree on how to do this land deal at first.  Abraham says to him the following in verse 13:

לֹא־אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי – No, my lord, hear me

And Ephron answers him in verse 16:

אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי – My lord, do hear me!

And perhaps the most important lines of the story.  The Torah says:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָהָם אֶל־עֶפְרוֹן – Abraham heard Ephron. 

There is a famous story told about Hillel and Shammai, the two famous rabbis who argued with each other over everything.  Hillel usually won the arguments, and the Talmud says the reason is because Hillel would learn Shammai’s arguments and even say them out loud before he made his own argument.  The Talmud says that they both looked at each other’s words as the voice of the living God.  But, one side did prevail over the other, but they always loved each other.  As the Talmud teaches, even though they disagreed, the daughters and sons of the houses of Hillel and Shammai married each other. 

They shared a table, no matter how difficult it was, because they listened. 

I have read many articles on how to survive the Thanksgiving meal.  Some said, don’t invite the relatives you most disagree with to keep the peace.  Some said, invite them, but don’t talk about anything contentious.  The other day, our rabbis from all movements sat together for our quarterly meeting, and we discussed the civil discord that is bound to happen in our community in this coming year.  One rabbi said, “The answer is, don’t talk about anything political at all.”  But if we don’t talk about the things that are most important in our lives, how will we move forward as a people and a country? 

We aren’t going to solve the Israeli Palestinian Conflict at our tables, nor are we going to convince each other that we are right and they are wrong, but we can learn from each other, and hear each other’s perspectives, and maybe grow a little. 

Lot and Abraham learned a valuable lesson after they separated – they need each other, and when the chips were down, they were there for each other. 

Those primetime personalities whom we watch every night for their snarky political takes won’t be there for us to comfort us when we have a loss, but our loved ones, even those we disagree with, can be. 

I would like to end with the words of my colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg, herself no stranger to discord, as she was the first female rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement after years of rigorous and often times uncivil, debate.  She wrote the following about our current climate:

“In today’s diseased body politic, there are, in fact, people who are misinformed and a small number who are demonstrably evil. But the great majority of Americans are people who have not yet encountered the political other as a human being, nor come to understand the other’s deep anxieties and values.  We will not begin to heal our broken democracy until we begin again to get to know those on the other side. Continuing to shout into our own echo chambers will not help heal a society riven with conflict and hatred. Neither will avoiding the political other, unless our goal is to divide the United States into two nations, one blue and one red. If we are to live together, we must summon the courage and emotional intelligence to converse in a new way. If you want to contribute to the healing of society, reach out to the other with humility and curiosity, and prepare to be surprised.”

After General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, fireworks filled the Washington D.C. sky, and crowds gathered to hear from the triumphant President Abraham Lincoln.  He was too tired to make a formal speech, but he asked the band to play Dixie, the South’s unofficial national anthem.  He said, “I have always thought it to be one of the best tunes I had ever heard.”

Lincoln was assassinated before he was to embark on his final victory, and what to him was to be his greatest accomplishment:  the healing of a fractured nation.  But I believe he gave us the blueprint a year before the Civil War ended in 1863:  healing begins in the home, with brothers and sisters who wore blue and grey, who fought each other, over a simple meal.  One side may win over the other, but we will be there to listen to each other, to care for the wounded, for those who have suffered, and for the widow, orphan, and the poor who are our fellow citizens. 

I know that my words have little chance to make a difference in this next year, as many rabbis realize, we know you hear from us once or twice a week, but you hear from great orators, pundits, and politicians who make a living by sowing discord daily if not hour by hour.    But maybe my words today will make a difference at your Thanksgiving meal.  Maybe you will change your mind and invite that cousin who you can’t stand to talk politics with, or maybe you’ll think more deeply about what you will talk about.  Maybe you’ll be like Abraham, and admit that you may not know it all, that you are a stranger in some areas.  Maybe you’ll be open to listening, and maybe, even if you win, you’ll play your opponent’s favorite song out of respect and love.   

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
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