Pessah: The Jewish Thanksgiving

Seder matza is not as sweet as Thanksgiving cranberry sauce and Turkey, but its taste of freedom and Jewish miracles is the same.

Pessah cartoon (photo credit: Pepe Feinberg)
Pessah cartoon
(photo credit: Pepe Feinberg)
One of the many great things about life here in Israel is the fact that our Jewish holidays are also our national holidays. No need to worry about missing school or work; the whole country is in festival mode and mood. Secular or religious, Ashkenaz or Sepharad, is there a child here who does not know – and love – Purim? Is there a home in the land without a hanukkia burning in the window, or a school that does not plant on Tu Bi’Shvat? Surveys tell us that the vast majority of Israelis participate in every holiday on the calendar, whether by building a succa, eating matza or fasting on Yom Kippur.
Such was not the case in “the old country.” Despite the fact that America is built on a foundation of religious freedom, and that Chicago – my hometown – is a paradigm of cultural diversity, the holidays back there always presented their own unique challenge. Universities and the workplace had not yet become fully “sensitized” to Jewish concerns, and so tough choices often had to be made. If special arrangements could not be negotiated for missing work or making up tests, one had to choose between hag (holiday) and career. We caught a lot of puzzled looks when we pulled out our cream cheese and jelly on matza “sandwiches” as we sat in the bleachers watching the Cubs game on Hol Hamoed. And it was particularly stressful during the “December Dilemma,” when Christmas and Hanukka coincided and battled head-to-head for supremacy in the media and the marketplace.
But, there was one holiday in the United States which bridged the gaps and was a great equalizer.
Thanksgiving was the one day each year when the national celebration was distinctly a-religious; it was simply a time to gather in the late afternoon and express gratitude for the opportunity to live lives free of oppression. (And of course, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Dallas Cowboys football game.) Our annual get-togethers with several families in our neighborhood represented a diverse cross-section of relatives and friends, among them our day school principal, a noted rabbi who told us that “giving thanks was an eminently proper and quintessentially Jewish thing to do.”
It seems to me that Pessah is the Jewish Thanksgiving.
The entire thrust of the holiday, and the Haggada, is all about Hakarat HaTov, appreciation and recognition – for God, country, family and fellow Jew. Perhaps that is the secret of its universal appeal, and why even the Wicked Child feels at home on Seder night.
WITH PESSAH’S theme of thanks in mind, we can answer some (four seems like a good number!) of the probing questions of the Haggada: Why was it necessary to bring ten plagues upon Egypt; would not one, mighty blow to secure our freedom have sufficed? But the multitude of the plagues allowed God’s awesome power to be displayed on our behalf and for our benefit, which heightened our sense of appreciation and provided a crucial boost of self-confidence to our downtrodden spirits.
And why four cups of wine, each with its own separate blessing? Because each cup toasts a separate stage in our liberation: the end of our physical servitude; our elevation to upstanding citizens; our Exodus to a land of our own; and our attainment of spiritual excellence when the Torah is bestowed upon us. Each milestone merits a new cup of rejoicing and a further recognition of God’s benevolence.
And now we can better understand the refrain of that most famous of Pessah songs, the dayenu. For how could it “have been enough” if the sea parted, and we could not safely cross it? Or if God had brought us out Egypt, only to starve in the desert? But the trick, you see, is to sing dayenu not as 21st century Jews with a 3300-year perspective on the Exodus, but rather as the slaves themselves, who marveled at each amazing step in the process of liberation.
By focusing exclusively on the moment at hand – and not engaging in the national Jewish pastime of worrying about tomorrow – we could appreciate our good fortune each and every single step of the way.
Which brings us to the “last word” of the Haggada, the Had Gadya. More than just a harmless children’s ditty, this song encapsulates our struggle to survive throughout the generations, in the face of countless hostile civilizations arrayed against us. Yet, as we run through the “cast of characters” in the story, one seems not to fit. The stick beats the dog, which comes to bite the cat, which sought to consume us, the one gentle lamb. But why should the dog suffer? After all, he saved us from the cat! The answer may very well be that, while the dog did indeed help us, he is not our true savior. He did what he did for his own reasons, not necessarily in altruistic defense of Israel. That accolade and praise is reserved for the ultimate hero of the Haggada, the Holy One Blessed be He, for He, and only He, watches faithfully over us and eternally safeguards us through every crisis. And so we end the Haggada on a note of giving thanks to our divine protector then – and now.
Thanksgiving in America left a delicious taste of turkey and cranberry sauce in our mouths. While the matza of the Seder may not have exactly the same savory flavor, the sweet taste of freedom and the ongoing miracle of Jewish existence – particularly in the renewed State of Israel – should give us all an ample appetite and appreciation for the many blessings that are ours.

The writer is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;