Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Standing in the Place Where the Other Stands
On Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans and supporters gathered on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to observe a national day of mourning, as has been done on Thanksgiving every year since 1970. On what is the quintessential American holiday, drawing us together from wherever we have come, a nation of immigrants from the Mayflower onward, I have often wondered, what about those who were already here, the only ones whose ancestors weren’t immigrants? In an admirable effort to acknowledge what this day evokes for Native Americans, the town of Plymouth erected a plaque that explains: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assaults on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggle of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
With Thanksgiving still in our consciousness, there is opportunity to reflect on the tensions inherent in this much-loved day, and by wrestling with them to be guided toward deeper understanding of other people’s realities. I do not share these thoughts to minimize or diminish the beauty that most Americans associate with Thanksgiving, the warmth and closeness of families gathered, or the importance of giving thanks. By acknowledging that there is another very different, more painful experience of this day, we deepen the positive meaning of Thanksgiving and our own experience of it. I share from a Jewish perspective a challenge that I believe every religious tradition calls its followers to strive toward. To live harmoniously with others, we all need to be able to hold more than one reality. For Jews, there is something in our very being that calls us to hold two realities at the same time. In the Torah portion that was read during the week of Thanksgiving, Genesis 28:10-32:3, the progenitors of the tribes of Israel are born. Among them, the fourth child born to Leah is Yehudah/Judah, from whose name derives the word Jew, which in Hebrew is Yehudi. The root of Judah’s name and the name and calling of every Jew is also the root of the Hebrew word for “thank you,” todah. Todah, however, also means “acknowledge.”
For all people, to thank and to acknowledge means to be able to hold two realities at once. To the degree that we can do that, recognizing the suffering of others, and reaching out from that recognition, even as we celebrate our blessings, adds profound depth to the meaning and sincerity of our gratitude. At the Passover Seder, when in the midst of joy and gratitude for our redemption, Jews pour off drops of wine even for our oppressors, we acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians. In the same way, holding two realities and more, as we all must, it seems to me that as Jews we should be able to understand and acknowledge why the “flowering of our redemption” today, our return to the Land of Israel, is experienced by Palestinians, though I admit to wincing at the term, as the Naqba/Catastrophe. As Jews, whose calling is not meant to be in name only, as every people’s ideal calling is meant to be lived, we should be able to acknowledge the reality of both experiences of the same event. Only then can we work to bridge each other’s experience.
Even as the Pilgrims modeled the first Thanksgiving on the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the challenge in the word todah, to thank and to acknowledge, offers a way today to deepen the meaning of Thanksgiving. As a day of commitment to end all racism and oppression, Thanksgiving can become a day of national reconciliation. The Hebrew word hashlamah/reconciliation means literally to make whole or complete, shalem. When through understanding we can stand in the place where the other stands, the circle of reconciliation will be complete. Hashlamah is the root of the word and the goal of the way that is Shalom.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein