An Interfaith Thanksgiving Sermon

Thanksgiving is all about family.  So, as we come together to begin this week of Thanksgiving, I thought I would share with you the story of a family.  This family started off as a couple struggling with infertility.  Eventually, the wife became pregnant with twins.  It was a difficult pregnancy and the woman wasn’t sure she was going to make it.  So, she prayed, and somehow, with God’s help and blessing, she survived the pregnancy and gave birth to two healthy boys.

From the very beginning, these boys were as different as different could be.  They had different appearances, different hobbies, different ways of speaking and different relationships with their parents.  As they got older, the differences grew greater and led to confrontation.  They argued over who was the true heir to their parents.

The parents realized that the two brothers could not coexist.  They would have to choose one or the other to be their heir and find another path for the other son.  The situation ultimately exploded into a full family conflict.  As a result, one of the brothers left home and did not speak to his family for the next twenty years.

This is not the story line from a cable TV series and it is not the subject of an old Oprah Winfrey episode.  It is the story of Isaac and Rebecca and their two sons Esau and Jacob as recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 25).

I share this story with you tonight as we begin our communal celebration of Thanksgiving because as I look at our country and even our community, I see brothers and sisters who focus on their differences rather than their similarities; I see brothers and sisters who argue over which Americans are the legitimate heirs to our Founding Fathers;  and I see brothers and sisters who are prepared to separate themselves as much as possible from their fellow citizens with different political beliefs – citizens in all 50 states including New Jersey have started petitions to secede from the union due to the results of our last election.

And seeing these things saddens me.

Now let’s be honest – elections are inherently divisive. In order to succeed, all candidates must show the differences between themselves and their opponents.  Otherwise, there would be no advantage to voting for one versus the other.

Once the election is over, however, we must find a way to set aside our differences with neighbors, friends or colleagues who supported the other candidate.  We must find a way to live together with people whose views are different than our own.  We must remember that the whole of America and – by extension – the whole of our community is greater than the sum of its parts.We are stronger, we are safer and we are more sacred when we stand together.

I think that anyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath in recent weeks must surely know this.

When over 90% of us lost our power, we could have each retreated into our homes and fended for ourselves, but that’s not what we did.  If you had hot water, but your neighbor didn’t – you shared your hot water.  If you had a generator and your neighbor didn’t – you charged their phones.  If you had a few gallons of gas and your neighbor didn’t – you shared your gas.  If you had heat in your home and your neighbor didn’t – you welcomed your neighbor into your home.

These aren’t just platitudes.  These are the real things that people did in our community.  These are real acts of kindness for which we should be thankful.

Let me share with you an example that I shared with my congregation just after the storm (I apologize to those who heard it once already).  A week ago Wednesday, as we were anticipating the arrival of the Nor’easter that followed the hurricane, a group of colleagues was sitting at lunch swapping stories about how everyone got through Sandy.  It came out that one of the colleagues was still without power and heat.  One woman excused herself from the table and made a phone call.  When she returned, she said to her colleague without heat, “My husband will be at your house this afternoon with a generator and he will hook it up to your furnace so you’ll have heat for your kids tonight when the storm arrives.”

Sure enough, at 4:30pm, that husband showed up at the house of a family he had never met with a generator, ten gallons of gas and a bundle of firewood.  He left with the furnace running and the temperature rising in the house.  I know that this story is true because it was my wife who had that lunchtime conversation and it was my house where that generator was hooked up.

And it didn’t matter for whom I voted the day before and it didn’t matter where I worshiped the previous weekend.  It didn’t matter where I was born and it didn’t matter what language my parents speak.  All that mattered was that a good man heard about a family in need, knew he had the means to help and was willing to help.  And for that, I was – and still AM – thankful.

In truth, it’s not entirely surprising when we see these acts of kindness in response to an emergency situation.  USUALLY, dire circumstances bring out the best in humanity (with some unfortunate exceptions).

The real question is: Why do we wait?  Why can’t we be good and kind and selfless when the weather is nice and the power is on?  How do we find that Divine Spark within each of us that miraculously combusts into a flame of Godliness during times of crisis on a daily basis?  To me, THAT is the challenge of religion – ANY religion:  to help humanity find the best part of ourselves and share it with others.

Now, this is true for individuals and this is true to for nations.  Sadly, it is impossible to ignore what we are seeing and reading in the news today, events taking place right now half a world away.  When two groups of people look at one another without kindness, without goodness, without selflessness, they see enemies instead of seeing fellow human beings.  And this lack of vision – this inability to see the humanity of the other – allows both sides to continue down the path of death and destruction instead of reconciliation and peace.

It took Jacob TWENTY YEARS before he could reconcile with his brother and return to his home.  During that time he was duped and mistreated by his father-in-law.  He made huge family and business decisions.  He probably could have used the support of a brother or a parent, but he denied himself those blessings.

Eventually, he chose to return.  He chose to find a way to have a relationship with his brother.  Before he stood face-to-face with his brother, though, Jacob did three things:

First, he engaged in self-evaluation.  Jacob spent the night before his encounter with Esau wrestling with an “Ish” – that’s the Hebrew word.  It is generally translated as “man,” and perhaps it was a man, perhaps it was an angel, we do not know.  According to one rabbinic interpretation, he was wrestling with himself.  In short, he was trying to assess his own behavior.  He was coming to terms with the fact that he was a part of the problem.  It was not just Esau’s fault.

Second, he offered a prayer.  After his struggle with the “Ish”, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face (Genesis 32:31).”  In addition to struggling within himself, Jacob turned to God for strength and guidance.

Third, he exhibited humility.  He sent ahead one of his shepherds with gifts for Esau and strict instructions to say they were a gift from the “servant Jacob” for the “lord Esau” (see Genesis 32:19).

As a result, Esau completed the reconciliation by receiving Jacob with magnanimity.  Esau had come with four hundred armed men.  He was physically stronger than Jacob.  He could have really harmed Jacob, had he chosen to do so.  Yet, he did not.  Just because we can hurt someone does not mean that we must hurt someone.

I think that Jacob and Esau set forth an excellent example for all of us as we contemplate our relationships with our families, neighbors, co-workers and others.

First, we ought to ask ourselves are we SO DIFFERENT from the person who voted for the other party?  Or from the person who goes to a different house of worship?  Or from the person who looks a little different than we do?

Second, we ought to turn to God in our own way, in our own language and ask, “What does our Creator expect of us and are we meeting that expectation?”

Third, we ought to consider what gifts and blessings we have in our lives that we could share with others so that they might know that we value them and see them as our fellow children of God.

This wonderful Thanksgiving Service which has become a tradition over these past six years is one small step of this process.  We come together tonight NOT in crisis and NOT in response to some unfortunate event or comment.  We come together tonight because this holiday is something we ALL share.  The sense of gratitude that we feel toward our Creator for life, health and other blessings is common to all of our faith traditions.

We come together because we recognize how important it is to sing together, to learn together, to pray together.  And so as we come together for the sixth time to celebrate Thanksgiving in New Providence and Berkeley Heights, please allow me to share with you MY prayer:

I pray that we will continue to be there for one another in times of need as we have been in recent weeks and that we will continue to come together on special occasions like this evening.  But, even more than that, I pray that we will take the kindness, goodness and selflessness that show themselves during Hurricanes and Interfaith Services and spread them out to the other days of the year so that anyone coming to our community would speak of us as Bilaam spoke of Israel so many years ago:  “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael – How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel (Numbers 24:5).”  And then, we will truly have cause to come together and give thanks.

On behalf of the Summit JCC and my family, I wish you all a Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving Holiday.




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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