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Essence of the Holiday: Giving Thanks for Family

November 22, 2006 By:
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman
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TOLEDOT, Genesis 25:19-28:9

Remember the movie "Avalon," about a large Jewish family in Baltimore in the retail business? Their celebration of Thanksgiving was a key part of the plot, with all the different people and story lines coming together at the holiday dinner table. By the end of the film, the conflicts within the family could no longer be contained. The perennially late uncle was so insulted that the turkey had been cut before he and his wife arrived that he stormed out, never to return to the table again.

"I can't believe you cut the turkey," he yelled in total exasperation, and was gone forever, leaving family unity as sliced up as the giant holiday fowl in the middle of the table.

All families suffer from internal tensions, and holiday meals are both moments of opportunity and danger for us. The soup is not the only thing simmering. All types of subterranean issues are there waiting to explode or to find resolution, either partial or complete.

Our Torah portion this week is all about family life, centering on real family and an important feast with all the trimmings.

Rebecca realizes that her son, Jacob, is not in line to receive the blessing of primogeniture from her husband, Isaac. So she devises a plan, including favorite foods, to make sure that Esau does not claim his birthright.

The power of the savory food and well-scripted table talk is enough to distract Isaac and secure the blessing for the pliable Jacob. Yet despite years of family discord, somehow, things work out for the best. Jacob becomes Israel; the promise of land and greatness given to the founding father Abraham are preserved; and the family "keeps going."

Sharing the Story Lines

In the contemporary Jewish community, we like to use the metaphor of family to describe ourselves in an idealized way at every level, from the smallest chavurah to the regional Federation that serves as our umbrella organization. Isaac and Rebecca were family; so, too, are we.

In Judaism, the family is the basic building block of society. It is where we learn to become human beings, where we learn our ethics and responsibilities, where our strengths are identified and heightened, where we turn to celebrate, to heal and to mourn. Families are indeed complex; they have multiple story lines running through them. It's something to celebrate, but it's also something we cannot take for granted.

To strengthen our families, we are commanded to come together every week for Shabbat and renew the bonds that link us. The same is true for our holidays.

While Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday, it is a family moment; as such, it can and should be used to reaffirm our ties and gain perspective on our blessings. We know that the pilgrims were not thinking about an American Sukkot when they held their first Thanksgiving feast, nor was President Abraham Lincoln when he elevated Thanksgiving to permanent national status. Nor do those facts matter in how we incorporate Thanksgiving into our lives as Jewish families.

Nothing is more Jewish or more human than to set aside time to take stock of all that we cherish. We have much to be thankful for in this land of plenty, of opportunity, of unparalleled freedom and security for us as a small religious minority.

In addition to traveling, eating, shopping and watching football, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to say thanks for all we have and for the presence of loved ones in our lives.

So, when you sit down to your holiday dinner this year, remember to offer a prayer of thanks, to say the "Motzi" -- and please, please, don't cut the turkey until all the aunts, uncles and cousins have arrived! We need everyone we love at the table with us. It's good for the digestion and for the soul. Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman is the rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

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