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. Tell me there isn’t meaning there.
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 40 years in the wilderness. And that protection continues to this day.
Sukkot never coincides with Thanksgiving, and good thing. On Sukkot, we sit outdoors in a makeshift hut — not necessarily how you’d want to end November if you lived in, say, Portland, Maine.
But Thanksgiving comes right before Chanukah — occasionally even colliding. And, when you think about it, Thanksgiving has more to do with Chanukah than any other holiday.
Thanksgiving is not your typical harvest festival. Thanksgiving comes packed with a deep narrative, what the Rev. Peter Gomes called the “American sense of mythic past.” 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.
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.
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.
It’s hard to find a real atheist. 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 OK to thank G‑d. And it’s extremely liberating.
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, 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. JN
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman is a senior editor at Chabad.org and heads its Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of 'Bringing Heaven Down to Earth.'