November 2009

Pilgrims

We learn early in our lives, at school and at home, about the Pilgrims and the story behind our celebration of Thanksgiving.  It is, of course, a mix of history and myth, and it is told more from the perspective of the newly arrived (and undocumented) immigrants rather than the local citizens.  Nonetheless, it conveys important lessons about human vulnerability and our need to “depend on the kindness of strangers”.

Last month, I heard a radio broadcast by Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.  He was speaking of the Jewish observance of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).  “Sukkot is a strange festival”, he said.  “It celebrates no miracle, like the crossing of the Red Sea, or the revelation at Mount Sinai.  It’s about homelessness and vulnerability…  As we sit in the sukkah, with only leaves for a roof, exposed to the wind, the rain and the cold, we feel in our very bones the raw edge of reality and know, in the words of one of our mystics, that life is a narrow bridge across the abyss, swaying in the wind.”

I’ve thought a lot about Rabbi Sacks’ words since I heard his message.  While it has particular power and poignancy for the Jewish people with their history of persecution and displacement, it also spoke to me and I think speaks to the whole human family.  Despite our prodigious efforts to control everything in our lives, deep within us remains a primal awareness of just how tenuous life really is.  We can live in fear of loss, or celebrate the gift of life.  In either case, we are compelled to recognize that we are all pilgrims here, quite dependent on forces over which we have very limited influence.

Our celebration of Thanksgiving, like Sukkot, occurs in the fall in conjunction with the harvest season.  It is a giving of thanks for all that which has sustained life for yet another year.  It centers around a great festival meal with thanksgiving: for the harvest, for one another, and for the gift of God’s presence in our lives.

We may not be very conscious of the harvest, except in the sense of the rise and fall of the prices of our groceries.  We may hear news of ice storms that have damaged the citrus crops, or of a parasite or blight that has infested the grain fields, or of a deadly virus that has infected some of our herds, or of water “wars” and irrigation problems in arid climates.  There are also rising costs for the fuel that powers all the transportation systems that deliver our foods from growers to consumers.  Yet for all that, we are pretty far removed from the farms that produce our food.  Most of us do not live on or even near farms the way previous generations lived.  We are much less conscious of our dependence on all those factors which determine the outcome of the harvest.  Most of us take our food for granted.

We are also less conscious of our dependence on all the “strangers” who produce and transport the food that sustains our lives.  Yet in the complexity of today’s world, virtually no one lives off their own land.  Self-sufficiency is a myth.  We are a world increasingly dependent on one another for sustenance.  We may be not only unaware, we may prefer not to know.  The extent to which we may depend on the hard lives of migrant workers in this country, or the exploitation of the peoples and resources of other countries, may be information we’d rather not have.

As we come to Thanksgiving this year, we would do well to learn what we can about where our food comes from and who supplies it to us.  We would do well not only to give thanks for what we have received, but for those through whom we have received it.  Our thanks-giving should be expressed not only in prayers of gratitude, but in heartfelt efforts to provide just and secure lives for those upon whom we rely for bread.

We are pilgrims here, all of us, fragile and vulnerable, dependent on nature, on one another, and on the presence of God among us.  Let us give thanks in word AND in deed.