Our Job for Thanksgiving

Understanding gratitude through The West Wing

It’s been a really rough 18 months. For whatever reason, the United States has created and sustained an election operation that takes too long, involves too much money, and leaves everyone, even the victors, feeling somewhat drained by the end of it. And after the politically disastrous election of Donald Trump, millions of people are terrified for the future.

Throughout this election, I have often turned to the magical TV show, The West Wing, in an attempt to feel good about politics again. And with Thanksgiving upon us, I recently watched Shibboleth (Season 2, Episode 8). This episode is one of the all time greats — CJ Cregg has fun with some turkeys, Toby Ziegler puts up a fight against school prayer, and Charlie Young sets out on an adventure to find President Bartlet the perfect carving knife for Thanksgiving.

With all this in the background, the main story line follows the Bartlet administration’s handling of a boatload of approximately 100 Chinese Christian asylum seekers who arrive in California after fleeing religious persecution. In the final scene of the episode, after deciding to allow the asylum seekers to remain in the United States, President Bartlet says to Josh Lyman, “Let me tell you something. We can be the world’s policeman. We can be the world’s bank, the world’s factory, the world’s farm. What does it mean if we’re not also…”

President Bartlet doesn’t finish his sentence. I so badly want him to say the United States should also be the world’s safe haven, guiding light, inspiring voice, and compassionate home for every person. And yet, as many people prepare to celebrate a day of gratitude in a year of much agony, we have more work to do in order to truly be more than a policeman, bank, factory, or farm. We have much more work to do to live up to our true potential as a country.

For a variety of reasons (I’ll allow you to guess), I don’t associate Thanksgiving with the celebratory meal shared between European immigrants and Native Americans during the 17th century. Don’t get me wrong — I still love the idea of setting aside an entire day to feel and spread gratitude for the blessings in our lives. But there has to be more to it, right? Maybe it’s just the future rabbi in me talking, but I like to view Thanksgiving as a secular Passover — a time for family and friends to gather, enjoy great food, and express gratitude for our many privileges and blessings. Just as Jews use Passover to remind ourselves of the time righteousness overcame the tyranny of Pharaoh, all of us can use Thanksgiving to examine our journey as a country, understand our many vexing challenges, and recommit ourselves to creating a country and world filled with compassion, love, and justice.

As President Bartlet prepares to give the traditional Thanksgiving Day address in the Rose Garden and close the episode, he says, “You know what I get to do now? I get to proclaim the National Day of Thanksgiving. This is a great job”.

Gratitude calls us to ensure every community is a loving safe haven for each and every person. My hope is on this Thanksgiving, we all make it our job to root out the hatred in our midst and proclaim gratitude, love, and hope to the farthest corners of the earth. Allow me to wish you a “Happy Thanksgiving” and may we find strength, inspiration, and enduring faith along our journey.

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