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I write to you in the midst of Sukkot, my lulav and etrog in hand, and give thanks for the bounty and beauty of the flowers that are still blossoming on my front porch in early October. The unpredictability of life in 2020 makes any advance writing a risk. But what I want to address is both timeless and timely—gratitude, the essence of both Sukkot and our upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
Sukkot is the only holiday of our tradition that our teachers tell us will one day become a holiday for all people. It is called Z’man Simchateinu—the Season of Our Rejoicing.
We celebrate the bounty of the earth and the harvest. At the same, we time remember our humble origins and live in a temporary dwelling—a sukkah—just as our ancestors did as they wandered the desert for 40 years, not out of choice but out of necessity. That we celebrate our harvest while dwelling in these fragile shelters reminds us to be grateful for all we have. Our tradition recalls the great humility and hospitality—the mitzvah—of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who opened their tents to both guests and those with no shelter. We uphold this tradition during Sukkot, welcoming guests—ushpizin—into our sukkah.
It was believed that the first Thanksgiving in America was the Pilgrims’ effort to celebrate the harvest … our Sukkot. They did not need to reminded about gratitude. It was a bleak background against which the Pilgrims marked that first Thanksgiving—of the 102 passengers who landed at Plymouth Rock, 51 had died in the first six months. Not a single family had been spared by death. The survivors lived on the edge of starvation in a hostile, uncharted world, standing against the forces of nature and those who did not welcome them. They gathered to give thanks to God for being alive and for the grain and food that sustained them. Their humble dependence on nature was not of their creation but of God’s bounty.
As I lift my lulav and etrog as shake it in all directions, I think about all I am personally grateful for. I weigh it against the harsh reality of this pandemic, the pain and suffering it has brought upon so many. And the losses—loved ones, jobs, housing, financial stability, confidence in the future. I ponder, what is my responsibility to others because I have been so privileged, so lucky to have traversed these last months in good health? Surely, it is more than simply to celebrate, to be aware? Our faith translates belief and gratitude into action. In the Talmud, we are told that each person is to recite 100 blessings a day.
So, how do we, in this time of a pandemic, express our gratitude for all with which we have been blessed? We must leverage our good fortune into action. We can give back not just with thanks to God, but by extending this privilege to our neighbors and all humanity.
Tikkun olam through social action has been a part of the ethos of Washington Hebrew Congregation since our founding nearly 170 years ago. Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to embrace the value of tikkun olam with action, and I ask you to join me for two important opportunities.
For many years, you have joined us at Temple on the Sunday before Thanksgiving for Sunday Stuffing. This year, it is neither safe nor responsible to come together—even when our desire is to provide “all the fixin’s” for a warm, nourishing Thanksgiving meal to people in need. As with many things during this pandemic, we adapt, and I am happy to share that Sunday Stuffing is no exception. With your help—and a visit to the grocery store or an online transaction—we can still provide more than 450 families and individuals from Abram Simon Elementary School, Carrie Simon House, Friendship Place, and N Street Village with “all the fixin’s” they will need to prepare their Thanksgiving dinners.
Our privilege demands more of us, and I call upon you to join me in an urgent and vital Congregational Conversation on the systemic indifference to racial inequity in our society. Black and Brown men and women die at the hands of law enforcement disproportionately to white counterparts. Black, Latino, and Native American people are far more likely to contract and die from coronavirus. Inequities go much farther. For those of us with white skin, we were born with unearned privileges that of which we may not even be aware.
Our Congregational Conversation about racial equity will include members and clergy from Shiloh Baptist Church, Contee AME Zion Church, John Wesley AME Zion Church, and Howard University’s School of Divinity—faith institutions whose constituencies have historically been people of color. Each month over Zoom, we will hear from a keynote speaker, meet separately with our own communities, and come together—zoom-to-zoom, heart-to-heart—to talk with our partners in small groups facilitated by discussion leaders.
The conversation opened last month with a keynote from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Isabel Wilkerson, guided by her bestselling book, Caste: The Origins of Discontent. You are welcome to join our conversation at any time and can learn more about it on page five.
As I hold the lulav and etrog in my hand—its leaves symbolizing our eyes and lips and the goodly fruit our heart—I feel their flexibility and strength and reflect on all for which I am grateful. I know that we must understand our gratitude with the entirety of our being—physically, morally, spiritually. Only then will we be able to fully open our hearts and become partners with God. Please join me in turning gratitude into action to make this a time of thanksgiving for all!
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