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Lands of Milk and Honey:
A Jewish Approach
to Thanks...giving

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It's Your Choice:
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Lands of Milk and Honey:
A Jewish Approach to Thanks...giving

In the Torah, just before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites are cautioned to "take heed that you do not forget the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt" and to beware of thinking "my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me." (Deuteronomy) In America, where we are raised to value our independence and individuality and to believe that we each control our own destiny, we might be wise to heed the same caution. But why? What is the danger in forgetting our humble beginnings and attributing our successes and our bounty to our own acts?

New nations and congregations are born out of the experience of their founding members—often out of hardship or a lack of certain freedoms. Whether we are Israelites, Americans, or Micah members, the constitutions and ideals we love, live by, and benefit from were created by those who endured a time in the wilderness, so to speak. So how is it possible for later generations, those of us who are born in the "Promised Land" and have never experienced hardship, have never been strangers in a strange land, to sustain these ideals, and what happens if we don't? Remembering our history and our origins can help us sustain nations. Remembering is vital to the very survival of all we hold dear.

Though not a Jewish holiday, Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to remember, if we approach it in a Jewish way. Usually we approach Thanksgiving in a very American way—we indulge in a bounty of food, eat until we are ill, and our response to this abundance is not gratitude, but lethargy. Then what? The biggest shopping day of the year, followed by…a few more days off. It seems Thanksgiving has lost its thanks-giving element. But what is the Jewish response to abundance? From The Bedside Torah: "Judaism has consistently recognized joy as the most fitting response to God's abundant love…And in the midst of enjoying the pleasures of living, Judaism bids us to remember those who cannot rejoice without our help."

This very Jewish mixture of joy, gratitude, remembering we were strangers, and helping others to enjoy the same pleasures we enjoy is expressed in the birkat hamazon, the blessing and prayer of thanksgiving that we say together after meals. "Infusing behavior with meaning is the agenda of Judaism...Jewish prayer should shock us into an awareness that life itself is miraculous…To eat as though eating is merely a humdrum event robs us of a chance for wonder…We did not create the food that sustains us. We did not create the earth on which it grows…By summoning us to show gratitude for our food, Judaism reawakens our sense of marvel." (The Bedside Torah) If we let it, our religion can put the "thanks" back in Thanksgiving and infuse this secular holiday with so much more than shopping and lethargy!

Giving thanks is one way of heeding Torah's constant caution not to forget our origins, our history, the source of our bounty, and those in need. Giving thanks is a way of preserving our society. Certainly we should enjoy this Thanksgiving, for "to reject a legitimate pleasure is to diminish the extent to which we truly live, to reject God's most fundamental gift." (The Bedside Torah) But it would also serve us well to see Thanksgiving as an opportunity to create new ways to remember the experience of those who wandered the wilderness for the sake of our abundance, as well as those who do not have the means to partake of it. Our ancestors would surely want us to eat, shop, rest, and fully indulge on Thanksgiving….but we shouldn't stop there. "'When you have eaten your fill,' says the Torah, 'give thanks.'" (Deuteronomy)

--Nickie Roberts

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Yih'yu l'ratzon imrei fi v'hegyon libi l'fanecha Adonai tzuri v'goali.

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