Last year I hosted 5 family members for Thanksgiving – outdoors, with individually contained meals and adequate social distancing. I can’t say it was much fun. It was cold and windy, and there was a bit of tension over what was perceived as paranoia on my part. I held firm to my requirements in the midst of a very deadly COVID wave that swept across the nation. It would be another month before I (a patient-facing healthcare worker) got my first COVID vaccination shot. The only good thing I can say about that Thanksgiving is that no one was sickened by the encounter. The food wasn’t bad either.
Now another Thanksgiving looms. All are vaccinated, but some don’t have their boosters yet. With immunity to COVID due to vaccination waning over time, this gathering – along with Chanukah gatherings taking place within the time frame that COVID infections incubate – this coming holiday season could be just as dangerous. Many experts continue to urge extreme care in such small and not so small gatherings.
Thankfully, the New York Times published a very helpful article entitled, “We’re Having a Holiday Gathering. Are We Nuts?” It asks nine questions: 1. Will everyone at the gathering be vaccinated? If the answer is “no,” then 2. Who is not vaccinated? 3. Is there anyone at your gathering who’s older or at higher risk for complications from Covid? 4. Are you traveling to the gathering? 5. What’s the Covid situation like where you’re celebrating? 6. How is the Covid situation where you live? 7. How big is the gathering? 8. How does the weather look? and 9. How many days until your event? Based on your answers in this “quiz,” the article provides great advice on how to significantly lower the risk of infection at your gathering. I urge you to read it closely and follow its instructions. Of course, you are free to be even more strict if you want.
One of the things I notice at such small, indoor gatherings is that people feel free not to wear masks, even if multiple households are represented. I attended one last week in which I was the only one wearing a mask among 20 or more attendees. For some reason, we feel free to let our guard down, perhaps due to pandemic fatigue or perhaps due to a false sense of security. One needs to be cautious. My father, fully vaccinated spent weeks in the hospital because of an absence of such vigilance, and he’s on a long road to recovery.
II. So… if you are dreading Thanksgiving dinner for another reason – the prospect of heated political arguments during this fraught period in our history, may I suggest a time-honored Jewish tradition around meals: Studying Torah? “When two dine together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Pirqei Avot 3:3) . My colleague, Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg compiled a wonderful source sheet for you. My colleague, Rabbi Deborah Cantor, formulated this prayerful kavana for you. And we can always count on noted rabbi and author Naomi Levy for this soaring “Prayer for the Thanksgiving Table.” And finally, one should make sure to dedicate a part of the cost of your gathering to a tzedaka of your choice, or to resolve to take collective action on behalf of a treasured cause. This is what my family is doing.
Despite an exceedingly difficult and vexing year-plus of plague and unrest, there is still much to be thankful for. In the Jewish tradition, we are called upon to recite at least 100 blessings a day, so in a sense, every day is Thanksgiving. May you be blessed with an abundant feast. May you be blessed with foresight and vigilance. And may you usher in this Season of Light with hope that the arc of history ultimately bends towards peace and justice. Shavua Tov and Chag Sameach.