Rabbinic Reflections: Thanksgiving rest

I have been seeking holiness of late. In the busyness of life and in the discordance of the airwaves, I have been seeking a rootedness, a stillness to make meaning of it all. Sometimes we just need to cease in order to be.

This Veterans Day, the sound of silence meant so much to me. For one, I learned, for the first time, a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions where he notes that “old men who were on battlefields … [described] the sudden silence [as] the Voice of God.” The old men were present at the close of WWI when at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, hostilities ceased. While I knew of Armistice Day as a predecessor to Veterans Day, I had no inkling of what it might mean to take a minute of silence to remember the end of WWI. This year, I took that minute, and it was holy.

May Thanksgiving be a time of gratitude, meaning, rest, and holiness.

My gratitude to veterans only increased as a result of being still, of listening to the silence and finding holiness. In past years, I have interviewed veterans to learn the stories of their service. Listening is such a necessary activity in our world where we normally rush past and too often yell. Veterans have so much to tell us; and, as I heard one veteran interviewed today say, we need to share in carrying the burden of those stories. My silence made room for that; I hope you will try it, too.

That same stillness is something I have been talking to my staff about as we approach Thanksgiving. The temptation with seemingly every holiday, especially if it becomes a vacation, is to cram our work into the days before so that we can be “off.” We unintentionally add stress to our packing, cooking, decorating, etc., and end up taking away from the celebration. Most of the time it is worth it, the memories are lasting. And yet I wonder how much more powerful, more enjoyable, maybe even more holy the day would be if we took time before. What if the days before Thanksgiving were also days of rest?

This Jewish year is a shmita year, the seventh year in a cycle towards a jubilee when we let the earth lay fallow. Shmita is observed in Israel much as it was in biblical times. Here, in America, it feels like we need a shmita for the soil of our daily lives. The pandemic pushed us very hard and is stretching our limits, especially for those with children under 5. At home, at work, at school, we have given our all, and our all is not what it once was. Shmitateaches us that the earth can continue to produce if we let it rest. The cessation from agricultural cultivation takes preparation and faith, and it pays off.

In seeking holiness now, in searching for more of “the Voice of God” in silence, my staff and I are taking Thanksgiving week as a shmita week. Our work allows us to, so I recognize the privilege. This effort is a conscious one that means we will append a note to our communications this week to indicate that we are working harder now so that we may rest then. We also will note that the effort is meant to help us recharge so that we can return to work on Hanukkah (literally translated “dedication), dedicated to our work going forward. I wish you a Thanksgiving of gratitude, of meaning, of rest, and I hope of holiness. It will take work; and, with effort, it can give rest to you and yours. May we return rooted and renewed.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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