On Thanksgiving, open your hand to the poor and needy

n 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “I do therefore invite my fellow … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving…. And I recommend to them that … they do also … commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving is the holiday to which most American Jews fully relate. It’s based on the biblical Sukkot, and it’s the American holiday most associated with family gatherings and food.

yet, there is much more to the holiday than stuffing and pumpkin pie.

As Lincoln hoped, it is a celebration of gratitude and an acknowledgement of good fortune. Our Jewish tradition is reflected in Lincoln’s words commanding us to care for those who cannot care for themselves: our society’s widows, orphans, mourners and sufferers.

Among the sufferers, Judaism includes the poor and the hungry. Scattered generously throughout our texts are guidelines for offering support to the less fortunate. We are instructed to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, to maintain the poor and to give according to our means. One cannot think about Judaism without thinking about charity and tzedakah.

Charity and tzedakah are different. While charity is almost exclusively monetary generosity, tzedakah includes the idea of the pursuit of justice — tzedek. Maimonides speaks of the eight steps of tzedakah — that some acts of giving are higher than others.

The ultimate goal, the highest form of tzedakah, is that which ensures that there will no longer be a need for charity. The old adage about giving a person a fish vs. teaching him to fish comes directly from Rambam’s theory.

In the meantime, however, we must not forget that the person still needs to eat.

Thanksgiving is a holiday about appreciating what we have. By acknowledging our blessings, we become aware of our vulnerability. We realize that our own abundance is tempered by the paucity that surrounds us. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, our communities are still filled with the impoverished and hungry.

Lincoln called upon all Americans to observe a day of Thanksgiving each year to thank God for what they had and to pray for those people who were suffering.

But, Judaism calls upon us to do more than just pray. We are commanded to alleviate suffering. Deuteronomy, Chapter 15, says, “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for what he needs.”

In addition to the commandment to care for our own, our tradition repeatedly reminds us of how we have often been strangers. In this way, the texts demand that we care for all of the strangers in our midst, and that we open our hands and our hearts to every human being.

We can change the state of hunger in America. We need not be discouraged. No matter how small the step, if we make it, we are on our way to stamping out hunger.

For more than 20 years, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has done just that, taking large and small steps to provide for hungry families on Thanksgiving and every day. From its beginning, MAZON has brought a message to the Jewish community that obligation should lead to action. This action, in turn, takes the shape of measurable steps that can make a real and lasting difference in hungry people’s lives.

In September of 2000, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, a set of global improvement aims with a target end date of 2015. The first goal was to cut extreme poverty and hunger around the world in half.

Studies show that if every American pitched in, it would cost each of us less than 10 cents per day, or $36 per year, to halve hunger by 2015.

What is $36? Double chai — a new life for the poor and a new consciousness for us. An end to hunger is possible.

Almost 150 years ago, Thanksgiving was established, in large part, to recognize the severe poverty created in the wake of the Civil War and to give people a special time to help each other. This year, as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations, let’s help others have a reason to give thanks.

Remember the commandment to open your hand to the poor and needy. This year, let’s acknowledge our civil responsibility and Jewish obligations. Let’s open our hearts and hands.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine, is chairman of MAZON. Dr. H. Eric Schockman is MAZON’s president. For more information, go to Temple Beth Am