A Thanksgiving Message

Thanksgiving is the first of many family and communal meals we will be sharing in the upcoming months. With the exception of mild anxiety caused by the obnoxious brother-in-law with his unfunny and inappropriate jokes and the aunt who will find flaws with the food even if it was prepared by Julia Child herself, we normally look forward to these occasions. There is something pure and beautiful in the simple act of sitting to eat and drink together, telling stories, and laughing that makes us happy. 

The Torah begins with the story of God placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, forbidding them of only one thing: eating from a specific tree. And then immediately after that we learn, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Genesis 2:6)

We are accustomed to identifying this very first action of Adam and Eve as an act of defiance and disobedience, and perhaps it is from God’s perspective. But, I would like to suggest that from a human perspective, they introduced the first act of intimacy: sharing a meal. We don’t know what kind of fruit it was (the Torah never mentions an apple), but we are all familiar with the positive feelings resulting from sharing dinner with people we like. 

In a recent article, Robin Dunbar from Oxford University, found strong evidence that (1) people who eat socially are more likely to feel better about themselves and to have a wider social network capable of providing social and emotional support, (2) eating with someone in the evening makes one feel closer to them than eating with them at midday, and (3) evening meals at which laughter and reminiscences occur and alcohol is drank are especially likely to enhance feelings of closeness. 

Thomas Foster in his instructive book “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, dedicates a chapter to meal scenes in classic books and plays. In his words, “sometimes a meal is just a meal, and eating with others is simply eating with others. More often than not, though, it’s not”. In the Jewish tradition, a meal is never just a meal. Our tradition was always aware of its psychological and social benefits. We conclude every Service with an Oneg or a Kiddush not because we need to add more sugar to our diet, but to strengthen the bond and feelings of belonging among the worshippers. After a Jewish funeral, the mourners return to the house and immediately share a meal with their close friends and family. It is not the physical hunger they so desperately need to satiate after burying their loved one, but the need of closeness and affection. 

The winter holidays are a large-scale version of sharing a meal. As Jews, we have a weekly opportunity to enhance these wonderful feelings of belonging with a Shabbat dinner. I encourage you to embrace this custom and bring your friends and family around the table as soon and as often as you can. You may join us at Temple for our monthly Shabbat Dinners, or host one at your home and invite your friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving.