Hanukkah is the original Thanksgiving. While it is true that our ancestors did not eat turkey (a North American bird), they certainly were cooking with oil. I am not at all certain whether the Maccabees ate latkes or jelly doughnuts, but the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that oil was a big deal to our heroes when they rededicated (in Hebrew, hanukkah) the Temple after it was trashed by the Syrian oppressors.
So how did the rededication of the Temple start out as Thanksgiving? Well, the Jews were grateful for the military victories that enabled them to restore the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple and gave thanks to once again have freedom of religion in their land.
One of the earliest sources about the original Hanukkah rededication, the extra-biblical Second Book of the Maccabees (10:6–7), tells us that,
They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of Sukkot, recalling how not long before, during Sukkot itself, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying their lulavs (myrtles, willows, and palm fronds), they offered hymns of thanksgiving [my italics] and praise to God who had given success to purifying of His own holy place. (2 Maccabees 10:6–7)
Apparently, if we can have Hanukkah at Thanksgiving time, the Maccabees had Sukkot on the 25th of the month of Kislev (at the winter solstice), and celebrated it by giving thanks for eight days and nights.
I wish I could tell you that in this week’s Torah portion, Mi-ketz, our ancestor Joseph also had an early Thanksgiving. Joseph might have been able to interpret dreams that foretold the future, but even he did not foresee what today they’re calling “Thanksgivukkah.” What our Torah portion does teach us is that through his canny readings of Pharaoh’s dreams, a gift of insight given to him by God, Joseph rose to power in Pharaoh’s court, second only to Pharaoh himself, “in charge of all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:41). When Joseph rode in his chariot the people cried, “Abrek!” (Gen. 41:43). The exact meaning of that word is still unclear—most interpreters suggest it has to do with bending the knee in homage. I like to think it could mean, “Give thanks!”
How amazing that Joseph, a Hebrew from Canaan, could hold such power in the Egyptian court. His rise to power was nothing short of a miracle (on the order of Hanukkah). Imagine a country where a person of minority status could rise to high office; where a Jew, for instance, could become a viceroy or a vice-presidential candidate or presidential chief-of-staff or secretary of state. Where a Jew could be a leader of his party in Congress or her political party at large. Where a Jew could sit on the Supreme Court. Where a Jew could be mayor of one of the nation’s largest cities. This is not Egypt of Joseph’s time, nor the Land of Israel in the time of the Maccabees—miraculous as those times were—it is our own beloved United States of America, here and now.
We should never fail to see the miracle of the country where we live. The United States is not perfect, far from it. But it is a place where we Jews, as a minority religion, must give thanks for our successes here. Our freedom of religious practice, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, has allowed us possibilities unparalleled in history. Our achievements are not only in political office, but in academics, medicine, law, business, and virtually every other area one might enumerate.
This coming week, The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor Arnold Eisen and I will be attending the annual White House Hanukkah party. It is a White House tradition that has been going on for many years now, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. Give thanks that we live in a country where the White House, the house of all Americans, makes its kitchen strictly kosher for the event. There will be latkes and jelly doughnuts satisfying both sides of the aisle.
When we are surrounded by family this weekend celebrating Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, rejoice in your family, rejoice at the food we have to eat and share, rejoice in the miracle of oil (whether it culinary or menorah-based), and rejoice in the country that has given us Jews so much to be grateful about.
I wrote above about our country, where a person of minority status can rise to high office. Of course, what is true of Jews in America is also true for African Americans. So I close these words of Torah with words of Thanksgiving from, of all people, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. He once commented on the election of President Barack Obama with the observation, “In Allah’s eyes, all people are equal, of course. But we are not naïve. The fact that you Americans could elect a black man as your President proves to us around the world that you really are the democracy you always claim to be.”
Abrek! Give thanks!
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.