Thanksgiving and Hanukah holidays overlap for first time in 100 years

This year, for the first time in almost 100 years, Thanksgiving and Hanukah overlap.

Because the overlap is so rare, there are virtually no established customs around how one should best combine the two celebrations. Of course, in our consumer culture, there is no shortage of strange and funny items one can buy, such as the “Menurkey,” which attempts to blend the two traditions in a lighthearted way. However, buyer beware, whatever you might be tempted to buy this year will not have another occasion to be used for more than 50 years.

But is there a deeper message that we can find in examining Hanukah and Thanksgiving together? I believe there is, and one good path to find that message is to examine the themes of the two holidays.

Thanksgiving is a feast of thanks to God for the blessings and protections that sustained the Pilgrims and enabled them to sail away and survive in a strange place where they could worship in freedom.

Similarly, Hanukah is a festival that reminds us to thank God for those miracles that sustained the Jews and helped them overthrow occupiers to reclaim the holy temple in Jerusalem as a place where they could worship in freedom.

So not surprisingly, the first common theme that surfaces is thankfulness for God’s bounty and blessing. But let’s look a bit deeper.

It is part of the tradition of many religions to bless God for the stars and the sun and the rain — things which we enjoy, but which exist outside our power to change. However, Thanksgiving and Hanukah involve a qualitatively different sort of thanks and blessing.

These holidays express thanks from people who were “all in” in their drive to secure religious freedom. The Pilgrims got on their boat and sailed into the unknown. The Maccabees formed an armed revolt against a tyrant with overwhelmingly greater forces. Human effort creates the opportunity for divine blessing. We cannot and do not make our own miracles individually, but collectively, we can work together to achieve extraordinary things in partnership with God.

The Pilgrims and the Maccabees put their hands to what their hearts told them was right, and had the will to sustain the effort and thereby created a space and time for God to work miracles.

I hope that each of us, in this combined Thanksgiving and Hanukah season, finds the strength and inspiration to put our hands to the substantial work required to address the basic needs of so many people who are hungry and homeless.

For me, Thanksgiving and Hanukah together reinforce the message to each of us not that we can expect miracles when we want them but that miracles can and do happen, where people come together to work for the good.

May we be inspired by the Pilgrims and the Maccabees to come together as a community to embark together on the great and good work of setting the stage for miracles.

 Jon Sobel has been a cantor at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown for 25 years.