There has never been a Thanksgiving like this one.
We need it.
We need it to be able to look again at the first Thanksgiving as if we had never seen it before. The wonder of it. The darkness of it. The terrible fears that led up to it, the mortal dangers for which nothing prepared those who lived through it.
We need it to remind ourselves that at heart, Thanksgiving, like America itself, is not about abundance. It’s about fragility, the fragility of the underappreciated blessing of life itself. It’s about surviving great and unknowable dangers with the generous, selfless, profoundly human help of others.
Many of them, strangers.
To borrow from the first of the Four Questions at Passover: Ma nishtana haleila haze – how is this night, this Thanksgiving night, different from all other nights?
It’s all too understandable that, despite the warnings, the anguished begging and pleadings of the medical professionals who are sacrificing their last ounce of physical and emotional resources to save lives during this plague, millions of Americans have pledged to hold a Thanksgiving just as they have every year, no matter what the consequences.
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It’s all too understandable because this of all years, everyone feels the aching need of being together with loved ones for the holidays.
It’s all too understandable that this terrible year of all years, everyone feels the powerful desire to practice the traditions they personally cherish, with all of the people they love.
But this Thanksgiving is not about freedom, not about holding fast to tradition. It’s about the responsibility of human beings toward human beings, their interdependence. No matter how difficult, or distant. It’s about personal sacrifice, for a common good.
If the hosts of that first Thanksgiving, the native-born of America, had considered their personal freedoms first and foremost, they could easily have seen these strangers, these migrants, as undesirable aliens. The migrants’ skin color was different, their language, their religion, their clothing, their habits. What if they carried disease? What if they were violence-prone?
The native-born of America could have responded by building walls against these strangers, these asylum seekers. They could have seized them and caged them. They could have hunted them down. They could have expelled them.
They could, most easily, have simply let them starve.
No. The hosts of that first Thanksgiving saw the strangers as human, welcomed them as human, fed them and saved their lives. As lives that mattered.
Ma nishtana hashana hazot? How is this year different from all other years we have known?
This year, America is wounded to the core.
America is fighting a world war, but without a leader.
In hundreds of thousands of households, a loved one is missing and will never return.
This year in America, Thanksgiving isn’t about freedom. It’s about responsibility. The responsibility of humankind for humankind.
It’s up to individuals to save one another.
This year we are in bondage. All of us, wherever we are. Alone, in the dark, with a plague.
Next year, God willing, we will be free.