4 Existential Questions Worth Asking on Thanksgiving

Published by The Forward, Nov. 22, 2016

Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of American holidays. It recalls the Torah’s instruction that “when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut. 8:10). Thanksgiving calls on Americans not to hoard the earth’s bounty, but rather to share with “the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your community” (Deut. 16:14; see also 24:19-22 and 26:10-12). As with Jewish festivals, the focal point is a family meal featuring traditional foods that connect Americans to their nation’s origin story.

Some families include a benediction or holiday songs, but this festival is also an opportunity for deep conversation about the blessings and challenges of contemporary America. Just as the Passover Seder leads us to consider the meaning of oppression and liberty, Thanksgiving has the potential to prompt discussions about the promise and the perils of liberty in our land.

This year many Americans feel a mixture of blessing together with deep foreboding regarding troubling political developments. Some families enjoy easy political consensus, while others are divided and either approach such topics with anxiety or avoid them altogether. Here then are four questions for Thanksgiving designed to clarify the issues of the day, guiding us from gratitude to generosity, and from satiety to action:

1) We are thankful for the earth’s bounty, but concerned about risks to its ecosystems. What is our responsibility as stewards of the environment?

2) We are grateful for the bounty of our holiday table, but mindful of the food insecurity experienced by many Americans. What is our responsibility to feed the hungry?

3)We are thankful for our nation’s democratic values and institutions, but concerned about threats to the freedom of conscience and its expression. What is our responsibility to safeguard “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

4) We are thankful for the diversity of America, a nation of native peoples and immigrants from across the globe, but concerned about escalating rhetoric that threatens minorities. What is our responsibility toward the stranger in our midst?