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That’s How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen singing "Anthem."

Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem.”

Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.

The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.

This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.

Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.

A Thanksgiving of Inclusion

President Franklin Roosevelt as he carves a Thanksgiving turkey in Wram Springs, GA in 1938.

President Franklin Roosevelt as he carves a Thanksgiving turkey in Warm Springs, GA in 1938.

On the weekend of November 14-15 almost thirty of us ventured on a bus trip to the Hudson Valley for a weekend excursion. I should acknowledge and thank Bob Newhouser and Mike Glikin for their impeccable organization of this trip. Our first stop was the FDR Home in Hyde Park, NY. One of the newsreels I have seen of President Roosevelt that stands out for me most vividly is that of him and his wife Eleanor seated at the head of a Thanksgiving Day table, as he carved a turkey with great skill and characteristically great good humor. The dinner took place in Warm Springs, GA, the site of Roosevelt’s home, known to many as “The Little White House.” Roosevelt built the house there because the water ostensibly had a salubrious effect during his rehabilitation from polio. Roosevelt used a sizable portion of his own personal fortune to build the Warm Springs Infantile Paralysis Foundation, and this Thanksgiving was also Founders’ Day of the institute. Roosevelt felt particularly comfortable at Warm Springs in the company of children and adults of all colors and creeds who were bound together by their affliction. They were all dealing with polio or similar conditions that caused levels of paralysis and disability. Roosevelt felt a special kinship to his friends in Warm Springs and much more free-spirited with the people with whom he shared this special bond. It is, of course, a bond that every single one of them would have wished they didn’t have to have. But they found support, help, love and acceptance in each other’s embrace, and that included the President of the United States.

We at Union Temple have been focusing on making our congregational home, and the programming within it, more accessible to people in our community who live with various kinds of disabilities, whatever they may be, and some are more readily apparent than others. As many of you are aware, we are being helped in this venture by the people at RespectAbilityUSA and UJA-Federation, who have awarded our congregation a sizable “Inclusion Grant,” which comes not only with a financial award but also with expert advice from professionals in this field, many of whom have gathered their expertise through personal experience.

As we gather this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, it might be in order for us to give thanks not only for the food in front of us (we should of course do that), but also for our health and strength, and if need be, for those who extend a helping hand when we need them, to bring us fully into the life of the synagogue.

And so too, on this Festival of Thanksgiving, would it be completely in order, as we begin our meals, along with our Motzi as we break bread, to remember our gift of life and rejoicing:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiy’manu, V’higiyanu Laz’man Hazeh

Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and bringing us together to celebrate this wonderful occasion.

Happy Thanksgivukah!

tturkey-dreidel-JPFerreira-flickr-roland-scheicher

Happy Thanksgivukah! Photos: JP Ferreira Flickr and Roland Scheicher

Happy Thanksgivukah! I admit that earlier this fall I resisted using this greeting, because I didn’t want to risk compromising the integrity of either holiday. Nevertheless, the confluence of these two beloved celebrations will not come around again for about 79,000 years, so I figured, why not?! If I’m still here for the next one, I’ll worry about it then. . .

As I said in my Bulletin message for this month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both celebrations of freedom – freedom from hunger and want, and freedom from religious coercion. The Pilgrims came here in 1620 to escape the religious tyranny of the Anglican Church, whose tenets they did not agree with. When they arrived, they faced the harshness of the New England winter and struggled to survive. Then, with the help of the Native Americans who were here, they eventually were able to plant appropriate crops and harvest them successfully. They joined with their newfound friends for a feast of Thanksgiving.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus IV (Antiochus “Epiphanes”) imposed a series of tyrannical decrees that banned the practice of Judaism in Judea, and coerce Jews into worshiping Zeus, and adopting pagan practices. The Syrians plundered and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. This was effectively the first religiously-motivated persecution in history. But in 165 BCE, Judah the Maccabee and his army scored a huge military victory when they defeated the Syrian Army and expelled Antiochus’ army from the Temple. Then in celebration, and in rededication of the Temple to the God of Israel, the Maccabees were finally able to celebrate the 8-day harvest festival of Sukkot, which they could not celebrate two months earlier, with the Syrians still occupying the Temple. (The oil, of course, was needed to light the menorah in the Temple for all eight of these days of this festival.) So Hanukkah, within its own context, is also a celebration of Thanksgiving – both for the harvest, and for the assertion of Jewish integrity.

As I see it, this “Thanksgivukah” is a gift to us this year. We will have the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah with many of our family members and friends that perhaps we wouldn’t normally be able to see during Hanukkah. I hope that we will take advantage of that opportunity. Turkey and latkes? Why not! Pumpkin pie and jelly doughnuts? Oh, go ahead! But most important is that we take some time this Thursday to remember how fortunate we are, both as Americans, and as Jews. May we never take either of them for granted. Celebrate with blessings and song.

Happy Thanksgivukah!