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Thanksgiving Meets Chanukah

Thanksgiving Meets Chanukah

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

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There’s got to be some connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah. Why? Because the Baal Shem Tov taught us that everything a person sees or hears is meant to be a lesson in life. Thanksgiving is the American holiday right before Chanukah. In fact, in 2013, American Thanksgiving fell on the first day of Chanukah.1. Tell me there isn't meaning there.

The Wrong Match?

Yet, if you’re looking for a Jewish thanksgiving, it’s Sukkot—which is the last Jewish holiday before Thanksgiving. 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 Thanksgiving comes right before—occasionally even colliding. 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.”2 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.
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.)
2.
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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous Fl 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. Reply

Alma Lopez Hollywood 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 Reply

Tzvi Freeman 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. Reply

Suzy Handler woodland hills, ca 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. Reply

Anonymous NJ 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 Reply

Joel 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. Reply

Moshe NY 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 Reply

Anonymous Awaiting Moshiach 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. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 25, 2013

plague of hail Book of Exodus, chapt. 9, verses 18-21. Reply

Joan Tel Aviv 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?

Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 20, 2013

"real atheist" The reason religious people don't believe that there is such a thing as an atheist is because we are taught to judge every person "on the scale of merit", "ladune b'chaf zechut", so we decide that he is either afraid or not paying attention or blind, or misinformed, or something like that, but not really an atheist.

Because the evidence of a Creator is so great, every step you take, every place you rest your eyes, you see a magnificent world of plan and purpose . The whole of creation is calling out to us, "Lift you eyes on high and understand Who created all this".

And if a person would just pay attention, he would see His guidance in his own personal life as well.

So we judge a person favorably saying he isn't really an atheist, he's just not paying attention. As it says about the plague of hail in Egypt, those who did not "pay attention" left their cattle in the fields. It doesn't say, those who did not "believe".

Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 19, 2013

differences between Chanukah and Thanksgiving Thanksgiving is a day for thanking G-d for His protection of the Pilgrims after their first hard winter in the new country. They thanked Him for their harvest, food and physical survival.

Chanukah thanks G-d for our spiritual survival. The danger was not death to our bodies but to our souls. The Greeks were willing to let us live as long as we would assimilate and become like them.

Oil, with which we light our Chanukah lights, does not assimilate. No matter with which liquid you mix it, it doesn't mix. It remains oil and rises to the top. On Chanukah we thank G-d for the survival of our Faith, that we remain Jews to this day. Chanukah is the triumph of the light of Torah over the darkness of Greek culture, the victory of the small jar of oil which lasted for eight days and lights up the world to this very day. Reply

Lemmy Caution 90210 November 18, 2013

Really energizing article. As a Christian working in a community with a significant Jewish population, I've learned much about and from Chanukah especially. Christian Holy Days have been under attack recently and we should take heed.
Thank you for your enlightening article - I never connected Thanksgiving with Chanukah but, the two really mirror each other in many ways.
Reply

Anonymous November 18, 2013

Real Atheist Religious people frequently claim 'nobody is really an atheist." That is twaddle. How do you know what other people don't believe? I happen not to believe in any deity or supernatural force. I read the article just because I was curious about this holiday coincidence. Being treated to an insult to my intelligence was just a bonus, I guess. Reply

Gaold spire billings mt November 16, 2013

Thanksgiving and Chanika I like this article. Reply

Shimon November 14, 2013

Thanksgiving and Channukah Interestingly enough, there is a Rabbinical narrative where the reason Channukah was eight days (besides the needed time to make oil) is that the year of the war, the Jews did not celebrate Sukkos because of the desecration of the Temple. So the Hashmonaim celebrated Sukkos during the eight days of Channukah, offering the sacrifices,etc.. So Channukah is also Thanksgiving!! Reply

Anonymous Indiana November 13, 2013

Watermelons?? Don't you mean pumpkins? Also, this says the first night, but your other article says Thanksgiving is the second night. Which is right Reply

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