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Thanksgiving Meets Chanukah

Thanksgiving Meets Chanukah

. . . and they find they have a lot in common.

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This year, American Thanksgiving falls on the first day of Chanukah. It happened only once before, in 1888. And it’s impossible to determine when or if this will ever happen again. (If you want to know why, read our article Chanukah and Thanksgiving: A Brief History.)

There’s got to be some connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah, something that’s speaking to us especially this year. Why? Because the Baal Shem Tov taught us that everything a person sees or hears is meant to be a lesson in life. So, when something as striking as a convergence of celebrations comes up, we need to figure out what it’s telling us.

The Wrong Match?

Actually, if you’re looking for a Jewish thanksgiving, it’s Sukkot. Sukkot is the original biblical Thanksgiving. The Torah calls it The Festival of Ingathering—in other words, when all the crops, fruits included, have been gathered in. At that point we gather for seven days to show our thankfulness. After we left Egypt, Sukkot also became a festival to celebrate the divine protection we enjoyed for forty years in the wilderness. And that protection continues to this day.

Sukkot never coincides with Thanksgiving. That’s a good thing. On Sukkot, we sit outdoors in a makeshift hut—not necessarily the way you would want to end November if you lived in, say, Portland, Maine.

When you think about it, Thanksgiving has more to do with Chanukah than any other holiday.

But here we have Chanukah lining up with Thanksgiving. And, when you think about it, Thanksgiving has more to do with Chanukah than any other holiday.

Beyond Corn & Watermelons

Thanksgiving is not your typical harvest festival. It’s about more than bumper crops and giant watermelons. Thanksgiving comes packed with a deep narrative—what Peter Gomes calls the “American sense of mythic past.”1 It’s a narrative about an arduous journey to escape religious persecution for freedom in a new land, the establishment of a democratic charter, and the sense of divine providence that carried those refugees through their plight.

Thanksgiving & Chanukah are both deep narratives in a nation’s collective consciousness.

That’s Chanukah, as well: a narrative deeply embedded in the collective Jewish psyche of how we fought back against religious oppression in our own land, earned our freedom, and thanked G‑d for the miracles.

In America, most holidays have lost their original significance for most people. With Thanksgiving, that may not yet be the case. Americans still act as though they identify with the plight of those Pilgrims. Most of us, after all, are descendants of those who fled to this side of the planet seeking a new future unbridled by the oppressive restrictions of the old world. And when we think of America, we still think of a land of promise and liberty.

The Thanksgiving Mantra

So, Chanukah and Thanksgiving are deeply connected, and that connection can be summed up in just four words: “Thank G‑d, we’re free.”

Why are those words important? Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a religious holiday. But please tell me, whom are Americans thanking? The turkey?

So, what’s so important about thanking G‑d?

Because it’s at that point that you become truly free of religious oppression.

That may sound strange. Hold on.

Liberty from the Bogeyman

Let’s say you can’t get yourself to say those words, not because you do not feel free, but because you claim to not believe in G‑d—at least, not one that can be thanked?Whom are Americans thanking? The turkey? But what if you think that belief in G‑d is irrational? What if you think that such belief is irrational, primitive and unscientific?

Then you need to ask yourself if you are still carrying the Pilgrims’ bogeyman of the Church of England, if Diderot is still screaming in your ear that “men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” and if the collusion of church and state is looming in your mind as though King Louis XIV and Czar Nicholas I came along on the Mayflower.

It’s hard to find a real atheist. Deep in the human consciousness lies a belief in a G‑d who cares. Deep—yet close enough that it will emerge in a crunch. In a typical conversation with an atheist, scratch the surface and you’ll find that a caring G‑d is not the real issue. The fear of an oppressive church and “organized religion” hijacking democracy is the real bogeyman.

But there is no bogeyman. We’ve left that behind. We are free. So, it’s okay to thank G‑d. And it’s extremely liberating.

It’s liberating, because that’s the foundation upon which liberty is built.

The Stuff the World (and America) Is Made Of

Let’s face it: America wouldn’t have been possible if no one thought that G‑d cares. If there weren’t people who believed that the state of humanity is of cosmic significance, that there was nothing that touched more closely the very core of existence than the way one human being treats another, then all that we call social progress could never have happened.

Thanking G‑d means you feel an affinity with whatever it is you believe is behind this whole existence. You feel there’s some sort of interaction going on here. You feel that this super-being, this transcendental oneness—as strange as it may sound—actually cares.

Which is a powerful statement. It says that caring doesn’t just make the world go ’round—caring is the reason it’s here to begin with. More than that, caring is the stuff this world is made of: as the psalm goes, “the world is built of kindness.”

Caring is the stuff this world is made of.

I’ve written before that if the leaders of the environmental movement would embrace those sacred root-values of American culture, presenting us as the appointed stewards over a G‑d-given planet, they would finally find their way into the hearts of the people. The same applies to those struggling to bring peace in distant places, those fighting crime and injustice in not-so-distant places, and those bringing compassion and values to corporate America. Belief makes change. Belief in a G‑d who cares makes lasting change for lasting good.

Free At Last

Hi, America, I’m Thanksgiving.
And I’m also Chanukah.

Hold my hand.
Take a deep breath.
Exhale.

Now say, “Thank G‑d, we’re free.”

Doesn’t that feel good?


Sources

FOOTNOTES
1. In his foreword to Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (17)
December 12, 2013
Backwards- America wouldn't have been possible if no one thought that G-d cares.
I think the better question is what role has America played BECAUSE GOD CARED.
America was formed by G-d fearing people, family values and a love of country. By 1948 America enjoyed a world wide respect unprecedented in modern time. This respect, due in no small part because of military superiority, was purchased over many years and born of G-d infused decisions and Spirit led people. America, which has not always stood with the Jews, led a coalition of a few to push through the reestablishment of the state of Israel. True, it is an extremely downsized piece of land from what G-d deeded to his people. Examine where Great Britain and America is today, compared to 1948, after carving away large portions of the Holy Land. However does anyone believe that in today's political climate this miraculous feat could be accomplished? It was G-d's timing which is always on time. America has completed its' greatest mission. I still give thanks for America.
Anonymous
Fl
December 2, 2013
Cosmic Union
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, It is wonderful to know that we are not alone with our thoughts, even was an obvious things to see, but how or what can we say about it was a different issue, I told my friend 'this is truly a special day' I felt the union of the sun and the moon, embracing each other and giving in unison a 'Thanksgiving ' to G-d, as absurd this may seems to be, I think that 'the knowledge of G-d as the waters covers the sea' had already begun. Thank you for spreading it.
Almah
Alma Lopez
Hollywood
December 1, 2013
For Joel who is celebrating his birthday today
This got me thinking: "numbers are like the moon and the stars, predictable."

Joel, have you ever seen a number? Can you explain what it is? Can you prove they exist? Mathematicians I have asked have answered either in the negative, or in very convoluted sentences to all the above.

Thanking G‑d for every day of life, now that's real.
Tzvi Freeman
November 29, 2013
Hanukkah and Thanksgiving meant a great deal to my family. I wish we could do this combination each year, but actually we always give thanks to G-d for everything we have--including our blessings and Jewish traditions. The wonderous oil that spread 8 days and nights brings hope year round.
Suzy Handler
woodland hills, ca
November 29, 2013
Common Ground
The article made some great points and comparisons between the two holidays; frankly I much prefer this coinciding with thanksgiving to the more usual coinciding with Xmas that has turned Chanukah for many Gentiles and secular Jews alike into a blue and white version of Xmas; for a holiday that celebrates our unyielding to the forces of assimilation into the popular culture, Chanukah has become for too many if us a means of doing just that; personally, I'd take a little turkey with my latka every year over the usual alternative
Anonymous
NJ
November 29, 2013
Birthday today
Never really cared about my birthday; I scorn the day I was born. How can you believe in something that does not exist? How can you follow a Gd, when you cannot even understand it? Numbers are like the moon and stars, predictable, but that which you do not understand is not predicable. Only find faith in those who have tread the impossible trail, and you might one day believe.
Joel
November 27, 2013
One of the Mitzvot of Chanukah is thanking G-d for the miraculous deliverance we commemorate and continually experience. This Mitzvah is performed by reciting the Hallel and Al Hanisim prayers.

In a similar vein, read the amazing proclamation by Abraham Lincoln establishing a day of Thanksgiving at the end of the American Civil War. He apparently knew where his bread was buttered.

Follow the link at HebrewBible dot com
Moshe
NY
November 26, 2013
Re: Thanksgiving and Chanukah
To add to that, a reason given for Beis Shamai, who say regarding the order of lighting the candles we count down, unlike we do today, is that it's similar to the offerings brought on Sukkos - which also are brought in a decreasing order. Apparently there's some sort of kabbalistic connection between Sukkos and Chanukah.
Anonymous
Awaiting Moshiach
November 25, 2013
plague of hail
Book of Exodus, chapt. 9, verses 18-21.
Shoshana
Jerusalem
November 24, 2013
atheists
Shoshana, your answer is unbelievable, absolutely floored me. You're right! We have to take notice. Though I'm not so observant, I'm certainly not an atheist and know there is a Creator. But I never noticed Him before. Since I read your cool comment, I see Him everyplace. Everyplace!

Please tell me where it says about the plague of hail in Egypt?

Joan
Tel Aviv
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