Giving Thanks in the time of Pandemic

Posted on November 26, 2020

I have a confession to make. It might surprise many of you, but I take a calculated risk in sharing: I love the winter holiday season. Everything about it. The decorations, the music, the magic that seems to be in the air for the six weeks or so which begin just prior to Thanksgiving and end just after New Years Day. I’ve always loved it. As a child in Los Angeles, my dad would drive us down Wilshire Boulevard to see downtown Beverly Hills all decked out, the sleds and snowflakes ironically hanging above the street, suspended on either side from the lamp posts, all while it might still be 80 degrees outside…window displays revealed along Rodeo Drive…beautiful holiday music playing from the shops and from speakers set up along the roads. At night after leaving my grandmother’s home from a weekend visit, we would often take the long way home, winding through the canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, enjoying the elaborate light displays of the homes we passed.

As an adult, I am no less enamored with it all. When I was in Seminary, I used to love walking down 5th Avenue and around Herald Square in Manhattan, enjoying the window displays, music, and the smell of roasting nuts. It seemed like the entire world was doing the same thing, and that everything was well with the world, if only for a brief moment, because everyone enjoying the beauty of the season was in harmony, enjoying something beautiful together, yet distinctly separate from each other.

This year is very different. There will be no parade route passing by Central Park; instead, a pared-down show in front of Macy’s. There won’t be the same lights and music on main boulevards around the world, and there certainly won’t be the throngs of people enjoying them. Holiday tables will be smaller, traditions will be missed. But as Jews, we know how to accept this and how to make do.

We have been reminded these past months of our obligation to press on even in the most challenging of times. We have been reminded that just as the Rabbis of old found new ways to sustain community after the loss of the Temple, so too do we need to reimagine our own communities. We have done that. Now, we have to reimagine family connections and traditions. As insurmountable as it seemed to reimagine a Synagogue community, I think it’s even harder to do this on a family level.

Some of us will be alone tonight — perhaps because we live far from family, or perhaps because it’s too unsafe to be with our loved ones who live in the area. Some of us will be with a spouse or partner, perhaps with our children. Very few, if any, of us will be with our entire close circles as we are so accustomed. Some of us have sustained loss this year, and that means that this Thanksgiving dinner, which is already challenging, will have another layer of sadness…another “first” without our loved one.

I want to call our attention to a mandate from the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 31a, 34b) which talks about prayer spaces. We are taught that “A person should always pray in a [space] which has windows…” This is why virtually every Sanctuary in the world has a window, a skylight, or some other way of bringing in outside light. This concept of the window in the sanctuary is so important. It reminds us that even while we are in our space, praying and studying, we are still connected to the outside world. We must work and pray and study for its welfare. We must realize that although we are a Holy or Chosen People, we are still so much a part of the larger tapestry of humanity…that no matter how particular our prayers might be, they have a universal impact.

This idea stretches beyond the Synagogue. It also belongs in our homes. We are taught that every Jewish home is a Mikdash Me’at, a small Temple, and that each of our tables is the Mizbe’ach, the altar. Connecting this with the idea above gives us important perspective. The idea of giving thanks is core to Judaism. Gratitude is one of our values which truly does connect us to everyone and everything around us. We have blessings of gratitude for everything – our bodies, seeing beauty in nature, surviving crisis, and celebrating life’s important moments – and thus there really is no more Jewish a holiday than Thanksgiving.

As we sit for dinner tonight, wherever we are and whoever we are with, I suggest that we take a few extra moments for gratitude. Look out the window. See our neighbors sitting just as we. Remember that we are part of something greater. Perhaps commit to a gift of tzedakah to make someone else’s life just a little bit better during this difficult time. We are part of something much larger than our family and our Synagogue community. Tonight, we are truly all in this together. It will not be the same, but it will be beautiful, and we can surely look forward to next Thanksgiving with great hope.

Robyn, Talia, and Ethan join me in wishing each of you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Even during these trying times, there is truly so much for which to be thankful.