This year, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are almost back-to-back. The last time there was a complete overlap was during the ‘Thanksgivvukah’ of 2013; the next time this will happen is in the year 79,811 (!). This rare near-conflation invites us to contemplate the connections between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and explore the dialectics of commonalities and contrasts.
In some obvious respects, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are similar. Thanksgiving, has overtones of Sukkot: gathering in the harvest, breaking bread in friendship, celebrating abundance and expressing deep gratitude for the aforementioned. Likewise, Hanukkah has overtones of Sukkot: the Book of Maccabees recounts that the Jews who entered to purify and rededicate the Temple brought in lulavim and etrogim in order to give thanks and observe the deferred Sukkot they had not been able to celebrate for the two years the Seleucid Greeks denied them access to the Beit haMikdash (Temple).
Of course, both these accounts are the sanitized, ahistorical version that proved foundational to the building of national identity and consciousness. At the same time, we must acknowledge our deep and increasing unsettledness with these official narratives. Neither Thanksgiving nor Hanukkah were as peace-loving and reconciliatory as the official versions credited them to be. The Hasmonean victory was essentially a bloody civil war between assimilated, Hellenized Jews and religious extremists, which the Rabbis in the Talmud switched out for an anodyne miracle story about a cruse of oil. Likewise, Thanksgiving is observed in some Native American communities as a national Day of Mourning, a memorial to their own ‘Churban’, destruction.
At the fulcrum of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah sits the complex and compelling figure of Joseph. The reading of the Joseph cycle always coincides with the Hanukkah season and I’ve made the comparison in a previous sermon. If Hanukkah is a story about resisting assimilation or acculturation, then the Joseph story is a story about how to navigate assimilation and acculturation. For indeed, the Joseph cycle takes place almost exclusively in Diaspora; at the behest of a foreign power. Joseph is the paradigmatic Jew who holds onto his covenant identity but also rises through the ranks of a non-Jewish society.
However, this is not the angle I want to take exploring Joseph this year. Rather, I want to look at another, as-of-yet unexplored Thanksgiving-and-Hanukkah intersection: the power and consequence of dreams.
If you have ever sung the traditional Birkat haMazon – Grace after Meals – on Shabbat, you will have uttered these words: ‘b’shuv Adonai et shivat Tziyon, hayinu k’cholmim; az yimale s’chok pinu ule’shoneinu rina’ – ‘When the Eternal returned us to Zion, we were like dreamers—our mouths filled with laughter, our tongues with song.’ This is from Psalm 126 and it is so evocative in its hopefulness, gratitude and joy.
Joseph, too, was a dreamer and although his dreams were not joyful per say, the consequence of his dreams were, dare I say, salvific. He saved two nations (Rav Yehudah in Talmud Tractate Pesach 119a even suggests he the saved the world) from starvation. He saved his family. And he saved himself. The very dreams that spoke to his arrogance and will to power became dreams for his spiritual growth, humility and compassion. Joseph is a textual Rorschach test—we can see into him (or project onto him) our own perceptions or biases about taking his moral measure. Was he noble or devious? A power hungry totalitarian or a bold humanitarian? At the core of his complexity lies his relationship to dreams—shifting from prescriptive to predictive, from soulscapes of power to visions of justice. The Joseph we encounter at the end of the cycle is resilient, grateful and compassionate.
The metaphor of Joseph is so much bigger than the protagonist. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are both the outcomes of collective dreams; born from fire and blood; the issue of strife and dominance. We too, as Americans and as Jews, are invited, encouraged, obligated, to conjure up new dreams of who we are, or at least develop a sensitivity towards the shadow side of our dreams. And during this dreamlike state of the pandemic, where we find our society and ourselves in a strange, discomfiting state of suspended animation, we have an opportunity to build a new soulscape altogether.
Psalm 126 continues on poetically: ‘Hazorim b’dimah, b’rinah yoktzoru’ – ‘may those who sow with tears, harvest with song.’ We can hold Joseph – and our inner Joseph, or our collective Joseph – accountable for the power he desired and the authority he wielded. We can strive to be like the Psalmist; who turned national pain and loss into a redemptive and inclusive joy. The Psalm closes with the poignant imagery of the farmer sowing seed and harvesting sheaves: the dream becomes actualized through tangible and restorative justice.
We need not to jettison either Thanksgiving or Hanukkah. We can feast on our beloved foods, gather with family and friends, light our lights and enjoy this special time of year. Historical consciousness and moral humility does not need to lead to the diminishment of our joy. On the contrary: we can find a deeper type of joy, burnished by solidarity and common concern, in a story retold honestly and unwaveringly about ourselves and each other.
The choice is ours. What were the truths that we dined with this Thanksgiving? Truths of a call to restorative justice over a torn land. Truths that the project of this Republic needs imagining and reimagining in every age and at every turn. But also truths that in the midst of a plague, amongst so much loss and pain, we can find the resilience of gratitude; the glory of small, meaningful gestures; the redemption of love, hospitality and friendship at our tables. Likewise, what are the lights that we will light this Hanukkah? Lights that shine upon the dark corners of ourselves, that bring to revelation pain that needs reckoning with; a Judaism that can be so much more and that must be so much kinder. We may very well leave behind Pharaohs and Hasmoneans, Pilgrims and soldiers, and find solace in the harvests of our beautiful earth, irrespective who it belongs to. Light, and food, earth and beauty, sharing and hospitality, courage and joy, gratitude and resilience. From the bent sheaves of Joseph’s dream to the gathered sheaves of our redemption—the best dreams have not even been dreamt yet and for that, we can be grateful.