Thanksgiving has long been a holiday that American Jews hold dear, and celebrate even more widely than Passover. This year's gathering might well inspire a recital of Ma Nishtana, marking the difference between this Thanksgiving and all others.
"Why is this night different?"
Because America has just elected its first president with neither political nor military experience, and therefore cannot be sure what stands he will take on major issues before the nation.
Because America in the wake of this election is more deeply divided than at any point since the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Exactly half the nation (including 30 percent of Jewish voters) will offer thanks for Donald Trump's accession to the office that Lincoln once occupied, while the other half are fearful that campaign declarations and past actions denigrating women, minorities, immigrants, and the disabled will become policies that punish members of those groups and further divide our country.
Because on all other Thanksgivings, American Jews could find comfort and security in the assurance that elected officials from the president on down would support the laws that have guaranteed freedom and opportunity for Jews and all other Americans.
Because when talk turns to politics, at it almost always does in my experience, there may well be spirited, honest, and respectful discussion this year between Democrats and Republicans, fans and opponents of the president-elect, which begins to heal the wounds opened by an often-vicious campaign.
I'll be reminding those at my table of the convergence of values between Judaism and America that has long made Jews like me feel at home in our beloved country in a way, and to a degree, that no other community of the Jewish Diaspora has known. My grandparents came to America as immigrants a century ago in search of freedoms and economic well-being unavailable in Eastern Europe--and found a country that thanked the God they too worshiped for, in Lincoln's words, "augment[ing] our free population by emancipation and by immigration." They eked out a living as tailors, sacrificed so that their children could get an education and do better, and--had they lived longer--would have seen their grandchildren taking still more advantage of open doors unique to these United States.
My family joined Lincoln--at Thanksgiving and at every holiday gathering--in expressing gratitude to God, who "has opened to us new sources of wealth and crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards." Having experienced anti-Semitism and bigotry in the old country and even here, they understood from the inside what Lincoln called "the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land." Judaism taught us to respect all peoples regardless of race, religion, or creed. So did America. That confluence of values made Thanksgiving a source of joy every bit as much as the bounty of the feast or the presence of friends and family.
Part of what I treasured most about Thanksgiving growing up was the argument that took place around the table without any sacrifice of love or respect. That was thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of Judaism, which commands us to be engaged with our world and work to better it but does not command us to vote for one party as opposed to another. It allows for differences of opinion on virtually all matters, trusting people of good will to work out their differences--religious and political differences first of all--in a way that advances the goals on which the Torah does not compromise.
We must be our brothers' keepers, body and soul, which means at the very least that the poor must have food on their tables. The dignity of every human being must be respected, for all are created in God's image. The planet must be tended and stewarded for the benefit of all God's creation and (in Lincoln's words) "for our posterity throughout all generations." We must never doubt that there is Right and Wrong, and strive to do the Right. There is Truth and Lies, and we must cleave with all our might to the Truth. The choice between Life and Death, Good and Evil, Blessing and Curse, is in our hands. We are commanded to choose Life as best we can.
I am hopeful that President Trump will live by his pledge to serve all Americans, including those whom candidate Trump threatened or derided. I pray that we will never see any Americans compelled to register their names with the authorities, as Jews were in Nazi Germany, let alone subjected to group deportation and worse, as Jews were in dark periods of our history. I trust that the new government will stand by Israel, as America has for so long--and that it will work with allies to secure the kind of world where small nations like Israel needs not fear aggression from more powerful neighbors. So much good can be done between this Thanksgiving and the next--by the private as well as the public sectors, by governments and religious institutions, and most of all by individuals and families for one another.
May "our adherence to the cause of freedom and humanity" continue to afford us "reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions." This night will be one of watching, of widespread want, and--in many homes--of real anxiety. I look forward to giving thanks next November for a year of kindness, care, and hopes fulfilled.