By RABBI TULY WEISZ, ISRAEL 365—
When I used to live in the United States, my curious non Jewish friends would always ask me at this time of year whether I, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, celebrate Thanksgiving. The mere question reminds me that we still have much to learn about each other, because the answer is so obvious once you really understand what Thanksgiving is all about.
Every American Kindergartner knows the story of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower who landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and gave thanks for their success and accomplishments. What most people don’t know, however, was just how unique those Pilgrims were.
Unlike any other group before them, the Pilgrims were fleeing from religious oppression in Europe and looked to the Bible for inspiration. They saw themselves as the chosen people fleeing from a brutal King (James I), who they referred to as Pharaoh, casting off the yolk of bondage and oppression. They referred to their voyage on the Mayflower as passing through the Red Sea into the wilderness. For inspiration, they looked to Exodus and even studied Hebrew in order to read it in the original. When they arrived in what they referred to as the “Promised Land”, they offered thanks and prayer to God, like the biblical Feast of Tabernacles.
No other group in history had ever felt that they were reenacting and fulfilling the Bible like America’s first settlers. For centuries, European explorers had set sail for new lands without referring to the Bible, seeing themselves as God’s chosen people or looking for the Promised Land. This remarkable fact was never inevitable and should not be taken for granted.
Furthermore, the Early Americans who looked towards the Biblical narrative for inspiration doesn’t end with the first Thanksgiving. In fact, that’s only where it begins.
At the first presidential inauguration in 1789, George Washington held up the procedures until a Bible was found, insisting upon swearing his oath of office upon it, a tradition that has continued to this day. Every American president has referred to the Hebrew Bible in his inauguration address, comparing his generation to the Israelites in the wilderness, confronted with challenges, yet on the verge of the promised land. British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that what is interesting is that not only does every American president look to the Biblical narrative for inspiration, but America is the only country in the world where this occurs!
The Jewish people have always claimed to have a special mission to promote the universal values of peace, freedom and hope, but unfortunately, for the last 2,000 years no one was listening. From its inception, however, America was different. Despite pockets of anti-Semitism, there has always been a deep and distinct appreciation for the Jewish people in the United States. The “American Dream” was built upon a Biblical foundation and we repeatedly refer to America’s “Judeo-Christian values,” which is one of the principle reasons for America’s strong support for the State of Israel.
Even now that I live in Israel, my family celebrates Thanksgiving because it is the day that celebrates a proud fact, that the lessons from our Torah have been ingrained into the American soul from its very inception. As a Jew, I am thankful that when America was discovered, America discovered the Bible.