Thursday is Thanksgiving, a holiday that almost every single American celebrates. And it’s an anomalous holiday, in that it is a secular or civic holiday, celebrating American prosperity, but observed by many Americans in religious ways: saying blessings or Grace before the meal and interfaith services such as the one taking place in our community on Wednesday (St. Rose Church, 5:30pm) with our own Rabbi Perolman preaching.
The Thanksgiving meal is often characterized by abundance. One of the ways we celebrate is by demonstrating how much we have to eat. The sense of satiation that we feel – and our pleasure at the company we share with those we love – touches a place of spirituality that is often deeper than any organized religion can express. But that place of contentment and pleasure can be instructional as well. Rather than simply basking in our turkey-induced lethargy, we can use the abundance of Thanksgiving to remind us that there is also tremendous hunger and lack. While we are thankful for what we have, we can be cognizant that not everyone currently shares our manifold blessings.
Today, we should live in a world where we never see children begging for bread, and Thanksgiving can be a reminder of just such a hope. God’s gift of nourishment has never been greater. There is a surplus of food being produced in the world’s fields, more than enough abundance for everyone. And yet, nearly one billion people are hungry. Twenty-five thousand people die every day due to malnutrition. Every six seconds a child dies from starvation. Global hunger is one of the most pressing challenges facing humans today.
But hunger today is not caused by a scarcity of food around the world. Hunger today is caused by problems in distribution and by the disruption of local food systems. In the past, people ate what grew nearby. But today’s local farmers cannot profit when their goods are sold alongside mass-produced food which, because it is mass-produced and often subsidized, can be sold at lower prices. Local agricultural systems have collapsed, and indigenous and poor people world wide are struggling to defend their land and water from encroaching international industries.
There are many efforts to end hunger. One idea coming into focus is something called “food sovereignty.” This means that people not only have enough to eat, but that they are at the heart of the decision-making processes that determine how and what is produced and available.
Of course it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge. There is a story from the Talmud which tells of the righteous Rav Huna, who, whenever he ate a meal, would open his door and invite in the hungry, saying, “Whoever is in need, come and eat.” His colleague, Rava, when told of this, said he would never be able to do that—there were far too many people starving in his town.
Let us follow the efforts of Rav Huna, rather than give in to the despair of Rava.
So what can we do? What can we do to take up Rav Huna’s challenge? What are some steps we can take in our own community that can help to end global hunger? Buying “fair trade” products, supporting various food sovereignty organizations, and being more aware of the food that sits on our plates are just a few ways. As we celebrate much abundance – even in the face of serious challenges that our communities face – our obligation as a religious and sacred community is clear.
What better time then when our tables are copious and our stomachs are full.
This year I am grateful for all that I have, both on my table and in my heart. In the Jewish tradition, we say at the conclusion of our daily Thanksgiving prayer, Baruch atah Adonai, ha-tov shimcha u’lecha na’eh le-hodot. Blessed is the Eternal, whose name is good and whom it is good to praise.
Let us, on this Thanksgiving, praise God’s name proudly, each in our own unique ways. But let us never lose sight of our common responsibilities toward one another and toward the rest of humanity. Let us work together for healing, for justice, and for peace.
From my family to yours, I wish you a happy, healthy and meaningful Thanksgiving.