by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
Thanksgiving was already an American tradition when, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation which made it a national holiday. Before that time states would designate their own Thanksgiving holidays; it is difficult not to see Lincoln’s proclamation as part of a larger project of attempting to re-orient American’s primary identity from that of their state to that of their nation. The real and true reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War aside, this shift in identity was one of its outcomes. In more ways than one, the “Union” won. From the perspective of the 20th and 21st centuries, Confederate General Lee’s decision to side with his state of Virginia over the country whose army he had served for decades makes absolutely no logical sense.
The parallels between the Thanksgiving of 1863 and our own tomorrow are hard to miss and may even provide some comfort to us during the most difficult November of many of our lifetimes. A deeply divided nation saw itself in the midst of a Civil War, one that would end up killing well over 600,000 Americans when it ended eighteen months later. Most everyone thought the Civil War, which began two years earlier, would be over in a few months. In the moment, citizens and leaders across the country felt that the essence of America – our ideals, identity, the Declaration of Independence famously written “four score and seven years” before – was at stake. The COVID-19 pandemic and the turbulent shifts in our political and social landscapes do, and God-willing should, pale in comparison to the death and upheaval of that singular epoch in our national history.
With this backdrop, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, likely authored by Secretary of State William Seward (full text below), is remarkable for its ability to inspire us today.
“The year … has been filled with blessings of fruit fields and healthful skies. … In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude … peace has been preserved …, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict ….”
It goes on at reasonable poetic length to paint a picture of America of which we can be proud and thankful.
The earliest Thanksgivings were, we understand, based on the holiday of Sukkot, fitting for groups of religious refugees seeking new freedoms across the Atlantic. The proclamation begins – “blessings of fruit fields and healthful skies” – by evoking Genesis 27:28 (which we read last week), Deuteronomy 28:3, or others. The spirit of Sukkot and Thanksgiving is encapsulated in the two verses from Psalms (118:1 and 118:25) which play the most prominent role in the Hallel service. Hallel is said throughout the year but, with the exception of Sukkot and Chanukah, nearly always we recite its abbreviated “half” version. Twice, eight and nine days in a row, for Sukkot and Chanukah, we recite it in its entirety. On Sukkot, in giving thanks, we shake the lulav and etrog as we recite:
הודו ליי כי טוב, כי לעולם חסדו / hodu ladonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo/ Thank God for God is good, for God’s lovingkindness is eternal
אנא יי הושיעה נא, אנא יי הצליחה נא / ana adonai hoshi’ah na, ana adonai hatzlichah na / Please God, save us! Please God, let us prosper!
If Lincoln and Seward could channel thanks and hope in 1863, we can surely do so in 2020. We have so much for which to be thankful, even as we have been reminded of the fragility of modern medicine’s ability to keep us all healthy, of the fragility of the nearly 250 years-and-counting of the American experiment, and even of the fragility of the globally connected civilization in which we live.
My own Thanksgiving Hallel this year will include these reflections:
As human beings, let us recognize all for which we have to be thankful, for there is much.
As Americans, let us recognize all for which we have to be thankful, for there is much.
As Jews, let us recognize all for which we have to be thankful, for there is much.
As Ramahniks, let us recognize all for which we have to be thankful, for there is much.
I defer to you, as well as your loved ones and friends, to fill in the rest.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.
The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.