Friday, November 25, 2016

Parashat Chayei Sarah: Happy Thanksgiving

            Shabbat Shalom! I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving, enjoyed your turkeys and your family time and maybe some football. Thanksgiving gives us much to enjoy, and is a beautiful moment to stop and think about all we have to be grateful for. However, I think most adults know by now that the origin story of Thanksgiving is a myth, or at least an anomaly of peace in what was otherwise a violent relationship between white newcomers to this land and its natives. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with before, especially in my adolescent vegetarian days. “How can we all sit around a big dead bird and celebrate the genocide of the Native Americans?” 16 year old Lizz would ask. The family dinner part got easier when I started eating poultry again, and eventually my involvement in other forms of activism allowed me to feel like I talk about genocide enough, I can set aside this day for family and gratitude without thinking too hard on its origins.
            This year, a Facebook friend weighed in on the annual leftist agonizing over Thanksgiving by offering a vision that really touched me. He said he likes to think of the myth of the Pilgrims and Natives getting along and sharing their bounties as a goal of what this country could be. Maybe it happened once and maybe it never happened at all, and maybe we haven’t learned the lesson yet, but we could learn it. We could learn to get along, to welcome in strangers looking for a better life, to meet those offering help with gratitude and not greed. We could have a country of equal partners looking out for each other and sharing our thanks. And as American Jews, we can learn how from our ancestors and our Torah.
            At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham addresses the Hittites, the specific tribe of Canaanites that he lives among, saying, “I am a ger-toshav, a resident alien, living among you. Sell me a burial plot among you so that I may remove my dead for burial.” They respond to him with great mercy and respect, telling him he may have whatever plot of land he considers best for his burial. He chooses the Cave of Machpelah and its owner immediately offers to give it to him. Abraham refuses to take it for free, and weighs out the proper amount of silver for the land owner. All the people in this business transaction are polite and considerate of each other’s feelings, needs, and concerns. Imagine if all business transactions and all acts of mercy for someone in need were this honest and open-hearted.
            This week, water protectors at Standing Rock are under siege. Water cannons are being unleashed on them in below freezing weather. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades rain down on real live Native Americans while we celebrate a holiday supposedly about the peace between them and the newer settlers of this land, and all in the name of business. America has not yet learned the lesson of the Thanksgiving myth, we have not yet learned to emulate our father Abraham or his Hittite neighbors willing to give away good land for his sacred purpose. But perhaps, in the coming weeks, as the season of giving descends on American capitalism, as the Festival of Lights approaches for us, we can find the ways we can open up our hearts a little more, shed a little light in the dark world, and be a little kinder, a little more giving, and more welcoming to the strangers, the poor, the orphan, the aggrieved. And may we find ourselves soon in peaceful harmony with all our brothers and sisters of this earth. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

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