With the commercialization of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, we often lose sight of their true meaning and Jewish origins.
Christmas celebrates the birth of a Jewish boy and shorn of the pagan influence, identity theft and Latinization of his name inflicted upon him by non-Jewish followers, Christmas reflects the hope that each child may become a savior who will usher in an era of peace as envisioned by our prophets.
Many people don’t stop to think why if our Gregorian calendar begins with the birth of Jesus, the first day of the year is not Dec. 25, erroneously thought to be his birthday. The mystery is solved when we remember that as a Jewish child, his arrival would not be celebrated until his bris, which occurs on the 8th day from Dec. 25, which falls on Jan. 1.
Modern America has also lost sight of the Jewish origins of Thanksgiving. When the colonists survived crossing the great expanse of the ocean and a tough winter in their promised land, they reached into Jewish Scripture, found the harvest festival of Sukkot and created Thanksgiving. The word “turkey” comes from the Hebrew, “tuki,” (a big bird) and the focus on a family meal in which prayers of thanksgiving are offered for God’s bounty and protection during the exodus, belies its Jewish origins.
Our nation began with 13 colonies and this number which is shunned by others but considered divine by Jews is featured on the dollar bill with 13 stars above the eagle, 13 bars on the shield, 13 leaves on the olive branch, 13 fruits, 13 arrows, and 13 stars forming a Jewish star, as a token of thanks from George Washington to Jewish philanthropist Haym Salomon who bankrupted himself to give the staggering sum of $25 million to feed, clothe and arm the Continental Army, which saved the fledgling nation.»Although our nation was born in 1776, it was not until 13 years later, in 1789, that George Washington was elected our first President, and the bill of rights was ratified, guaranteeing, at least on paper, freedom and equality for all Americans, proving that America did not mature until its bar mitzvah.
Like much else in Judaism, the expression of appreciation is often taken to ridiculous extremes by a mindless Orthodoxy, which results in rote, ritualistic recitation of stultifying prayers that include sexist exhortations of thanks for not being born a woman and ethnocentric arrogance for not being born a gentile. Sadly, many intelligent Jews are turned off by this assault against reason, and abandon our precious heritage.
As Issur Danielovitch explained, “Years back, I tried to forget that I was a Jew…I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat…I grew up praying in the morning and laying tefillin. I gave up much of the formal aspect of religion … I don’t think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others.”
If Issur, who later became known as Kirk Douglas, had been offered a rational approach to Judaism, rather than indoctrination, perhaps we would not have lost him and millions of others among the best and the brightest of our Jewish youth. Rational Jews do not give thanks to supernatural beings who require obsequious subservience like his vicar on Earth, a president who refers to himself as “King of Israel” and the “second coming of God” and also demands slavish fawning to avoid his wrath.
Modern Jews challenge such abusive authority, and inspired by science and reason, feel joy for life and its blessings. Our sages teach that happiness comes not from having a lot, but from being content with our lot. Giving thanks is the literal meaning of the word Jew, derived from the Hebrew “Y’hudah” related to “todah” or thank you in Hebrew. In rational Judaism, this attitude of gratitude is not just a platitude, it is the core of Judaism and our foundation for a joyous life.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s talk “turkey,” and honor freedom and American values by rejecting leaders who allow Turkey to gobble up the land of our allies the Kurds, and deny freedom to those who fought with us in the war against ISIS. And let us offer thanks for the bounty of nature by electing responsible leaders who will protect our planet and cherish its beauty and diversity for future generations.
Rabbi Barry Silver is the spiritual leader of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach. He may be reached at email@example.com or (561) 302-1818. This article appeared in the Jewish Journal of South Florida