Thanksgiving Reminds Us Of The Value Of Interfaith Unity
Approaching the “holiday season” this year calls to mind some perhaps surprising associations: a death-defying drive, an ancient Rabbinic text, and how they both relate to the season and the pandemic.
Last year, back when no one thought twice about visiting family in other states, my husband and I drove to New Jersey from Ohio with our four children, to enjoy some Thanksgiving turkey with my sisters and their families, and Shabbos with my in-laws. It was lovely, until we set off to go home.
The drive started off okay: I had the first turn at the wheel while my husband tried to sleep, a big cup of coffee at the ready, the sky gray but not especially threatening. Then an extensive highway closure ahead brought my husband to Google an alternate route – and almost immediately, we discovered Lesson One of navigating on the backroads, especially in the winter: Don’t.
Perhaps we would have enjoyed it more in an ATV, but what we had was a Toyota Sienna minivan – a minivan containing my four children as well as my husband and myself, all of whose lives I am fiercely protective of. Neither the minivan nor I were prepared for what turned out to be the twisty, slippery inclines of – I kid you not – the aptly-named Shades of Death Road and Heller Road.
We shouldn’t make fun; Heller is a perfectly respectable last name, and I assume the road was named for someone perfectly respectable. (Also, my last name is Rudolph. People in glass houses… shouldn’t make jokes about other people’s names.) But it is a mark of the extreme anxiety I felt that I found myself – a person who never ever uses stronger words than “shoot” or “heck” – joking with my husband and then-11-year-old (the others had fallen asleep) about the “Heller-of-a-road” we found ourselves on. It kept us laughing, which was important – though as I told my son, when he asked at one point whether I was laughing or whimpering, there’s a fine line between cathartic laughter and a nervous explosion.
The adventure was kicked up a notch when we turned onto the much-less-aptly-named Delaware Road, which turned out to be a solid sheet of near-invisible ice. We couldn’t see it, but in our non-AT vehicle, we could certainly feel it.
The fact that I’m writing these words should tip you off that we made it to Heller and back, even down Delaware, with our lives intact – thank God – but it was a very slow, tense trip. And I’m fairly sure I owe our survival, at least in part, to the people around me, both loved ones and strangers.
I am entirely not the sort of person to make cursing jokes like those above (even light cursing, even without really saying the word), especially with my child. And I really didn’t want to scare him by letting him see how nervous I was. But sharing that experience with my children as well as my husband – the fear as well as the laughter – was oddly comforting as well as steadying. I was glad when my son described his own nervousness, that it was something he could put words to and that we could talk; I was glad when he laughed through it with us, which probably helped keep me from freaking out and losing control.
I hope he remembers the drive as I do, as an experience we shared and survived together.
Then there was the camaraderie with other drivers who cautiously made their way down various roads along with me, lights flashing to signify our shared pace and concerns. On Delaware Road, ours was just one of several cars inching along at approximately four miles per hour. I felt like we were a team, fighting for survival side by side (well, front to back), despite never even seeing each other’s faces. Once we were back on the highway and some drivers felt more secure, there was one blue car that stayed behind me – at a safe distance – also moving slowing, hazards flashing like mine, that made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Every car and truck that whizzed by despite the sleet could have made me feel silly and even egged me on to unsafe speeds. (We saw some of those daredevils later, crashed on the side of the road just as I’d feared.) But that one car was a friend, holding steady with me. Helping keep me steady.
In recent months, I think many of us have gained a new appreciation of the value of shared experiences. Not long after my state basically shut down, I remember walking around the block with my kids and thinking “everyone, in every one of those houses, is dealing with this too.” We passed strangers who were out walking too, and I thought “I don’t know that person, but I know they probably also need this walk to get some exercise and a change of scenery, because they’re also probably largely stuck at home. They’re trying to manage the same worries we are.” Though the pandemic has presented different challenges for different people in different ways, and we all handle even the same challenges in different ways, there is a common baseline that made me feel like all those strangers were my friends. Like we’re all inching down the same road, lights flashing in warning and commiseration.
It’s no empty sentiment when the signs in stores reminding us to put on a mask note that “we’re all in this together.” Even those who disagree about the best way to handle COVID-19 share in the basic fact of its massive disruption of our lives. It’s not a pleasant thing to have unite us, but the sense of being united really can help weather it.
Speaking of weather again (see what I did there?) brings us to that ancient text I mentioned, which relates:
“A certain non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, ‘You have holidays, and we have holidays. At a time when you are rejoicing, we are not rejoicing; and at a time when we are rejoicing, you are not rejoicing. When do we and you rejoice?’ [He answered,] ‘When the rains fall.'”
As an American in modern times, I relate deeply to this ancient conversation. “You have holidays and we have holidays” – as we are all keenly aware in this country when the “holiday season” rolls around. Notwithstanding well-intentioned attempts at inclusivity, we all know “holiday season” centers primarily around a specific holiday that does not actually include us all. We have our own holidays, which could – and perhaps should – highlight the differences between us. After all, the Jewish holiday that falls this time of year is built on the importance of maintaining Jewish identity in contrast to surrounding cultures.
And yet, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha does not reject the implication of the gentile’s question, that there is value in finding a time “when we and you rejoice.” There is value in recognizing our shared human experiences and needs, such as the rains that provide our food, and celebrating together when those needs are fulfilled. There is value in recognizing that we are “in it together” even as we maintain strict lines of difference (and in some cases, a safe distance).
Not all Jews are comfortable with Thanksgiving as a shared holiday; some are concerned about possible hints of religion in its origins, among other things. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha’s response in the above text seems to me to offer a positive way to relate to it especially in the midst of the larger “holiday season.” Though I appreciate the good intentions of those who take care to wish me “Happy Holidays” in December instead of assuming we share a more specific holiday, I appreciate even more when I’m wished “Happy Thanksgiving” in November – because Thanksgiving relates to a much more basic shared human need. Surviving an icy road, finding ways to exercise our bodies and our minds under difficult restrictions, the rains that provide our food – these are all things we can share, against the backdrop of a firm commitment to the values that divide us. These are worries that we are “in” together, and perhaps that camaraderie can keep us steady on our shared road, inching towards those moments when we can celebrate fulfillment of our needs, big and small, together.
January 08, 2021
January 08, 2021