Thanksgiving in Difficult Circumstances: Rabbi Emeritus Merle E. Singer

Click here to read Rabbi Singer’s full Thanksgiving Message on his beautiful blog.


Thanksgiving is a time-honored tradition that has come to represent different things to different people. At its best, Thanksgiving is celebrated the way it is shown in sentimental grocery store commercials. Families gather from far and wide to share a special dinner. They laugh and tell stories and share hugs and love. They make happy memories while enjoying each other’s company.

Some of us may shed a tear or two when we watch these ads.

Many of us are touched by the sentiments because they make us think of good times when our family is all together. For others, it might be a painful reminder of days gone by, and a reminder of those we loved who are no longer at the table.

Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova    @minigirl Sourced from Unsplash

Others still, may find these ads too painful to watch, thinking:

“My family doesn’t look anything like that. We would never be able to have a dinner without someone causing a fight at the table.”

Over the more than half century of my being a rabbi, I have very often been involved in counseling people in crisis.

Sometimes, simply listening and allowing someone to share their problems out loud is all that is needed for them to see their own solutions and develop a plan to lighten their burdens. But often, there are complicated issues, deep hurt and seemingly insurmountable barriers blocking the path to better days. I often refer to this as “the narrow place” where life is dark and it seems there is no escape.

Leo Tolstoy’s opening line from his novel “Anna Karenina” comes to mind. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The line is worth considering because it suggests that there are common factors that can be seen to contribute to the happiness of a family. These may include trust, unconditional love, laughter, and even the choice to be happy, and perhaps the ability to overlook missteps and just go forward.

The second part of the line, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” suggests misery can arise from an endless variety of individual circumstances. This is true. I’ve heard enough stories to know it is.

People often carry their pain into every aspect of their lives. Many times, if you are listening to their story, you will hear that all they really want is to put the pain down, and let it go.

Through my experience as a rabbi seeking to help people with their struggles and heartache, I have developed a concept of the battlefield of life and how to best approach it.

Photo from Unsplashed by Etienne Boulanger   @etienneblg

First, see your target not as a bullseye to hit, but as a quest for understanding. Bring humanity to the battlefield. Quiet your anger and open the path to listening.

Build the courage within you to admit there is room to live a different way. See your conflict as an opportunity to learn about the person you are battling with and be open to seeing how you might change your relationship or perhaps change your circumstances.

How can this be accomplished? How do we find our starting point? Perhaps it can start with a shift in attitude and a willingness to listen. Or maybe it starts with the powerful words, “I’m sorry.”

In the Talmud we learn that there are many mountain tops and all lead to the stars.

I can only be myself and see, at most, half of the reality of the valley of life below. If I make myself open to listen to you and understand your view, I will see much further. Without you giving me your perspective and sharing your experience, I can only ever see half of the world. Together we can share our innermost feelings and perhaps fill the void that has led us to confrontation. It will, at the very least, open a way to understand not just our different points of view, but a way to see a future for both of us.

We can all do better if we listen to each other with an open mind and a willing heart.

Photo from Unsplash by Juliette F.    @julfe

As you sit down to dinner with your family and loved ones this Thanksgiving, I ask you to remember to bring a willingness to listen and a willingness to compromise to your gathering. Find your way to acceptance and endeavor to set a tone where everyone is allowed to speak, and to be heard.

Concepts such as “Derech Eretz” (literally, “the way of the land” or good manners) and “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) are central to Jewish ethical teachings. These principles emphasize the importance of treating others with kindness, respect, and empathy. When we do this, we are doing our part to foster a sense of social responsibility and interconnectedness.

As a rabbi, I am someone who is expected to be even handed in all things. That doesn’t mean that I am not also a man who has very strong opinions of my own as to what I can agree with, and what I disagree with.

I might not like to eat what is being served but I will respect that it was prepared and served to me by hands that have joined with others to welcome me to the table.

Although we each may have different tastes, I think of the words of Elie Wiesel, who said “We are all children of the same God, and cannot stop living.”

Wishing you and your family a very happy and peaceful Thanksgiving.


Rabbi Emeritus Merle E. Singer

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