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Who’s Sitting At Your Thanksgiving Table This Year? Bethel Interfaith Thanksgiving Service – November 25, 2015

Who’s Sitting At Your Thanksgiving Table This Year?
Bethel Interfaith Thanksgiving Service – November 25, 2015
Cantor Penny Kessler

About 20 years ago, I volunteered to help create and edit a school newspaper at Johnson School. At the organizing meeting in early-November, one parent suggested that we hold off until “after the holidays.” I was baffled. I soon realized that I was focusing on the Jewish calendar, while everyone else was headed into the months’ long marathon that is the Christmas season. For Jews however, the holiday marathon of 4 major festivals over the course of 24 days, had just ended, and I was finally able to take a deep breath as I took down our family sukkah as we ended our marathon of fall festivals. Right, I thought; we’ll wait until after THOSE holidays. Aha.
         Many here may recognize Sukkot as “Tabernacles.” Every year Jews – including my family – erect sukkot, temporary hut-type structures that replicate the way our Biblical ancestors would erect temporary dwellings in the fields as they went out for the final harvest. We spend 8 days hanging out in our sukkot. Depending on the weather, we eat meals in the sukkah; some hearty folk even sleep in them. For Jews, decorating the sukkah is the equivalent of Christians’ decorating their Christmas trees, only we decorate with samples of the season, fall flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
Sukkot is a fascinating festival. The essence of Sukkot, exemplified by the impermanence of the building itself, is awareness that life is fragile. Material things offer only the illusion of protection. God is the ultimate protector of our spiritual and physical lives. Material things are essentially immaterial; one good, strong wind can take down any sense of security. One nasty wind or rainstorm shuts down performing the obligation of hanging out in the sukkah.
You probably didn’t come here to learn about a Jewish holiday. But it’s important for this reason: Legend has it that the first Thanksgiving in the United States was a religious homage to the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish festival of Sukkot. You see, before they headed out to the new world, the pilgrims, victims of religious persecution, had spent significant time in Holland with the Sephardic Jews who lived there. These were the Jews who, just a little over 100 years before, had been thrown out of the countries in the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. When the time came for these Christian wanderers to acknowledge the Source (with a capital S) of their having survived the miserable winter, we are taught that they looked to the Jewish Fall harvest festival of Sukkot.
While Thanksgiving as we know it today is all about indulging in the world’s abundance, and Sukkot is the opposite, Sukkot and our Thanksgiving are existentially intertwined. All Jewish holidays embrace openly thanking God for something – freedom, the gift of the Torah, miracles and wonders – Sukkot is the granddaddy of giving thanks. Just like the first Thanksgiving in New England, we express huge gratitude that the final harvest has come in, no small potatoes (so to speak) when you’re living in a less-than-friendly agricultural environment that exists in a life-and-death struggle with the weather.
Thanking God requires way more than lip service and a well-brined turkey. It requires action, doing something with our gratitude.
         So we open our doors and our hearts. Guests are a hallmark of Sukkot, and there are at least seven, none of whom will actually either respond to the Evite or show up. They are some of our Biblical ancestors, chosen by tradition based on the values they represented. They are some of the answers to the eternal quiz question, “If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, whom would you invite?”
         Opening our homes to guests – or traveling to family or friends – is a hallmark of Thanksgiving as well. I bet that some of you grownups play a game of who’s-got-more-guests-coming-this-year than your friends. The more guests, the merrier.
         And so here’s my suggested invite list for this year. It’s based on those ancestral values. There are no special menus required. They’ll sit wherever you place them. And don’t worry; they can sit at more than one table at a time. [1]
1.    First let’s welcome love and kindness. Our mutual Scriptures are chock loaded with love, God’s and ours, however you define your deity. When Cousin Tilly decides that dessert is the time to go all political, toss her a kind glance and smile. There’ll be stories to tell about these dinners in years to come, and a little kindness never hurt anyone. While we’re at it, let’s put fear into the corner for tomorrow. Especially in these troubled times when it’s hard to figure out who’s a friend and who’s an enemy, and some people are determined to lump every stranger into the enemy camp, fear – which is not in and of itself a bad thing – is causing people of good will to make some pretty awful decisions. Really, people, we can do better than that; we must. We are all of us strangers in a stranger land, right? Let fear come to your table, but please don’t give it any protein.
2.    Second seat: some restraint and personal strength. A decade ago or so there was an article in our local paper that stated that the only sin on Thanksgiving is not having enough food. No, friends – the only sin is obsessing about not having enough food when homeless shelters are bursting at the seams and food pantries are barren. Please know that there is a day after Thanksgiving, and there is no such thing as a perfect meal. Just ask Julia Child.
3.    On their right is beauty and Truth with a capital T. Truth as in (updating Mr. Jefferson as I’m sure he would have done if he were asked) “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If that’s not beauty, I don’t know what is.
4.    Next to Truth sits eternality through God’s holy words. Many of the religions represented here tonight believe – insist – on a world beyond death, not to mention a belief that there is a greater spiritual Truth than we can ever recognize in our limited capacity. We are not the be-all and end-all of this world.
5.    One of the greatest characters in the Bible is Aaron, Moses’ brother. Dating myself, Aaron’s the Biblical version of Deanna Troi, the Star Trek empath. He’s the peacemaker, the one who is able to pull disparate groups together. For the one who is receptive to divine splendor, we are all created in God’s image. Surely Aaron deserves to sit at our table; let’s sit at his right hand and learn from him.
6.    The 6th guest is holiness. All of us have some holiness inside, and it’s our job, especially at this time of openly recognizing and talking about our many bounties, to recognize the holy inside each of us. Even Uncle Murray, the one who gets drunk each year and bellows unspeakably awful things when he’s had too much to drink … even Uncle Murray is holy. Someone should keep him away from the liquor cabinet, but not your table (and take away his car keys no matter how belligerent he gets).
7.    Finally, let’s welcome the establishment of Heaven on earth. No matter what you call the higher power you look to for your source of strength and blessing, let’s agree for at least tomorrow that we are all working for the same goal: to make the world a better place.
This Thanksgiving, while we say “hurrah for the pumpkin pie,” let’s also say, God bless this magnificent experiment known as the United States.” 
Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] Descriptions of the ushpizin values/qualities:


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