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Good evening. Shalom. Salaam Aleikum.
Friends, you know this story, this freedom story. It begins with a water-crossing.
On November 9th, 1620, after two arduous months at sea, the Mayﬂower sighted the scrubby coastline of what we call Cape Cod. Outﬁtted in austere black and white, stovepipe hats and shoes with buckles, freedom-seeking Puritans established Plymouth Plantation. Meager of skill and meager of tools, the Pilgrims cobbled together cabins, cold and leaky. A punishing winter stymied all attempts at agriculture. Disease swept the colony. Of the 102 Mayﬂower passengers, only half survived the ﬁrst winter.
But a “friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists,” a classic textbook explains. “He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Capt. Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend
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themselves against unfriendly Indians” (America: Its People and Its V alues, as cited in Charles C. Mann, “Native Intelligence,” Smithsonian Magazine, online edition, December 2005).
Squanto taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying ﬁsh heads alongside the maize seeds. The colonists grew so much corn that it became the cause for the ﬁrst Thanksgiving, a three-day harvest feast held the next fall, in company with local Indians with whom the Pilgrims were living in peace. They played Indian games like football. They hunted wild fowl like turkey and made the roasted bird the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. They baked pumpkins into pies.
Thus was the American Thanksgiving born.
That, anyway, is the story we tell--inaccurately, according to historians like Simon Worrall and Charles Mann from whose eye-opening articles in Smithsonian Magazine I have drawn liberally in presenting the following, less familiar picture:
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The Mayﬂower passengers were not Puritans and the name “Pilgrims” would not be applied to them until the late 18th century. They were Separatists. Unlike the Puritans whose name derived from their wish to purify established doctrine and ceremony of the Church of England, the more radical Separatists “split oﬀ from the mother church to form independent congregations, from whose ranks would come the Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant denominations” (Simon Worrall, “Pilgrims Progress, Smithsonian Magazine, online edition, November 2006).
A band of Separatists had escaped England for the Netherlands in 1607, and only after thirteen years and much trial and error did the Mayﬂower successfully set sail. Even after sighting land “the hapless Mayﬂower spent several frigid weeks scouting Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died” (Mann).
They did not wear black and white or stovepipe hats or shoes with buckles. “They dressed in earth tones—the green,
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brown and russet corduroy typical of the English countryside” (Worrall). Following English custom, they did not bathe, and were hirsute and smelly, especially next to the smooth-skinned, fastidiously clean Indians who greeted them with an admixture of suspicion and disgust.
The colonists failed at agriculture because they were not, principally, farmers. In fact they had neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules, or horses. (They may have brought pigs.) Equipped with ﬂimsy rods and lines, they had intended to make a livelihood by exporting salted ﬁsh back to England. In fact it may have been they who taught Squanto the technique of fertilizing the soil with ﬁsh heads and not the other way around.
His name was not Squanto. It was Tisquantum, and even that was not likely a name given at birth. Tisquantum means “spiritual rage.” When he introduced himself to the colonists, “[I]t was as if,” one historian has put it, “he had stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello, I’m the Wrath of God’” (Mann).
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Tisquantum’s reasons for assisting a community of Europeans cannot be ascribed to pure altruism. He was sent by Massasoit, the sachem or Indian chief of the Wampanoag tribal confederation, to the Indian settlement of Patuxet, where the colonists established Plymouth.
Tisquantum knew Patuxet. It was his home.
Almost seven years earlier, in this very place, a man named Thomas Hunt, the lieutenant of Captain John Smith of Pocahantas fame, had massacred Indians, taking Tisquantum hostage at gunpoint with eighteen other Patuxet villagers, forcing them into the hold of his ship and kidnapping them to Spain where he planned to sell his cargo as slaves. Saved by Spanish priests who intended to convert him, Tisquantum escaped to London where he was taken in by an Englishman who taught him our language. More than ﬁve years after his kidnapping, Tisquantum successfully booked passage on a vessel bound for New England.
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When he ﬁnally arrived home, what he saw astonished him. Southern Maine to Narragansett Bay had become one great ghost town, a “cemetery 200 miles long and 40 miles deep” (Ibid) with skeletons littering the countryside. His hometown “Patuxet had been hit with special force. Not a single person remained” (Ibid). He ﬁnally encountered a handful of ragged survivors who sent for Massasoit. The chieftain explained that a pestilence had raged for three years, killing up to ninety percent of the people in coastal New England. Historians now believe that the epidemic was viral hepatitis spread by the spoiled food of European settlers. Massasoit had once presided over as many as 20,000 tribal members; now his entire confederation could not muster even 1,000 (Ibid). ( It is in this historical circumstance that we should contextualize Squanto’s “friendly residency” among the Plymouth colonists and the so-called ﬁrst Thanksgiving. Both Massasoit and Tisquantum had their motives. The former hoped to use the colonists as allies against the Narragansett Indians, sworn enemies of the Wampanoag
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confederation, and Tisquantum, with his ﬂuent English, made the logical go-between. For his part, Tisquantum hoped to reconstitute his home community of Patuxet which, you will recall, was situated at Plymouth. By relocating the major Wampanoag settlement, Tisquantum hoped to strip the rulership from Massasoit. To this end, during his year in Plymouth, Tisquantum covertly fomented mistrust of Massasoit among fellow Wampanoag and simultaneously tried tricking the colonists into attacking Massasoit.
Meanwhile, “[b]y fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving,” modeled after European harvest festivals. Apparently “Massasoit showed up ‘with some ninety men,’ most of them with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and ﬁring their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratiﬁed, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food and complained about the Narragansett.” And that, says historian Charles Mann, was the ﬁrst Thanksgiving (Ibid). There was lots of corn. There was no turkey. The pumpkin they did eat was boiled. The holiday was not repeated next
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year; only later was it revived, and, and despite Washington’s proclamation of the holiday in 1789, it was not institutionalized by Congress until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
They may, however, have played football, so at least one present-day tradition gets it right.
The bitterly ironic epilogue to this story, as Mann reports it, is that while Tisquantum was busy sowing maize seeds sideby-side with the settlers, Massasoit was unwittingly sowing the seeds of his people’s destruction. By concluding a ﬁrstever Indian treaty permitting a permanent settlement in New England, Massasoit made possible waves of European immigration courtesy of the beachhead in Plymouth. Over “the next decade tens of thousands of Europeans came to Massachusetts. Massasoit shepherded his people through the wave of settlement, and the pact he signed with Plymouth lasted for more than 50 years. Only in 1675 did one of his sons, angered by the colonists’ laws, launch what was perhaps an inevitable attack. Indians from dozens of groups joined in.
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The conﬂict, brutal and sad, tore through New England” (Ibid).
It was not only European growth and guns that did in the natives; the settlers’ germs took the heaviest toll. Lacking any natural immunity against European-bred diseases like smallpox, Indians died in ferocious epidemics.
“Why didn’t they teach me this in school?”
That was my ﬁrst reaction to encountering this material and perhaps it was yours too. Our Thanksgiving narrative is not really history but rather what Rev. Kalajainen described in last year’s Thanksgiving sermon as “a composite of fact and imagination and good storytelling.”
It is, in other words, a Myth, capital “M,” which means a Master Story. No mere fairy tale, a Myth is the Story that a People tells about itself to explain its origins, understand its place in the world, and express its innermost values.
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We need our Myths. We also need to destroy our Myths.
Friends, you know this story, this freedom story. It begins with a water-crossing.
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” For centuries we languished under the taskmaster’s whip; then, armed with holy power, we were redeemed: God’s signs and wonders in Moses’s hand, God’s words in Aaron’s mouth, God’s spirit in Miriam’s music. Spared the bloody ﬁnal plague, we ﬂed under the cover of night, more than a million strong--600,000 men of ﬁghting age alone, the Bible reports--marching to the water’s edge. Moses raised his staﬀ; the Sea parted. We crossed to safety while the waters closed in over Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots.
This Myth, this Master Story, has inspired countless generations. In it, early Christians found a spiritual antecedent for the saving power of Christ: as God had delivered a nation from bondage with the blood of the ﬁrstEcumenical Thanksgiving 2010 page 10 of 19
born, so too would the blood of the only-begotten one deliver the faithful from their bondage to sin. The AfricanAmerican community adopted the Bible’s Exodus narrative to express its innermost longing for a hero who would deliver them. “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell ol’ Pharaoh/Let my people go!”
The Myth has elemental power. The indomitable pull of human freedom; the will to cast oﬀ all that shackles the human spirit; the inexorable judgment of human tyrants: these themes inspire us to this day.
That we were slaves undergirds the Torah’s most frequently repeated precept: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9, etc.) In Judaism, empathy and ethics arise out of the experience of slavery.
The only problem is, it is not likely that we were ever slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
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According to historians and archaeologists there is no evidence that the Exodus ever took place. Whatever did happen did not happen the way the Bible says it happened.
Skepticism about the Biblical account is nothing new; in the halls of academia, scholars have subjected Scripture to historical-critical scrutiny for the better part of two hundred years, and the science of Biblical archaeology has grown over the last century into a celebrated discipline drawing upon billions of investment dollars in Israel alone.
Rabbi David Wolpe articulated all these points, more or less, to his congregation in Los Angeles on the morning of Passover almost ten years ago, to considerable uproar. Reﬂecting years later on the ensuing brouhaha, Wolpe said: ( Endlessly reiterated is the mantra ‘absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.’ In other words, the fact that we have never found a single shred of evidence [of an Israelite encampment] in the Sinai does not mean the Israelites were not there.
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This is nominally true. We have found Sinai evidence of other people who predated the Israelites, and while it is improbable that 600,000 men crossed the desert 2,500 years ago without leaving a shard of pottery or a Hebrew carving, it is not impossible…. However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements-pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great inﬂux of people around the time of the Exodus.… Therefore, not the wandering, but the arrival alerts us to the fact that the biblical Exodus is not a literal depiction. In Israel at that time, there was no sudden change in the kind or the volume of pottery being made.… There was no population explosion. Most archeologists conclude that the Israelites lived largely in Canaan over generations,
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instead of leaving and then immigrating back to Canaan (As cited on Beliefnet.com, emphasis mine). Additionally, no Egyptian documentation exists that speaks of an Israelite enslavement or mass departure--and the Egyptians kept meticulous records of which many have been excavated. So where does the Myth, the Master Story, come from? Some have conjectured that a very small band of refugees of Egyptian slavery, perhaps Israelites, eventually made their way to their homeland and their story found its way into the national narrative of their Canaanite brethren. My personal conjecture is that the story was composed by and for Jewish people living under a documented example of displacement and subjugation, in the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE--in which case the narrative of a long-sincepassed Egyptian slavery functioned as an allegory for a present-day condition, giving hope that God’s judgment would depose the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar and allow God’s faithful to cross the Jordan to freedom.
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As with the Thanksgiving story, one appropriate reaction is, “Why didn’t they teach me this in school?” The answer is because we need our Myths. They embody what we as a nation, a religion, a civilization most cherish. The truths they convey are eternal truths. As Wolpe memorably puts it: “Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. Faith should not rest on splitting seas. At the Passover Seder we declare: ‘In each generation, each individual should see himself as if he (or she) went forth from Egypt.’ The message does not depend upon whether 3 or 3 million individuals left” (Ibid). To analogize: haven’t you ever read a story that changed your life? That gave you sudden insight into the human condition, the world, the Divine? For me, those life-changing stories include Shakespeare’s Hamlet which says as much or more as any work of literature about what it means for a human to be or not to be. “Fiction” usually outclasses “non-ﬁction” when it comes to conveying essential Truths.
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Or consider Henry Thoreau’s W alden. Would it change your impression of the rugged outdoorsman at the center of the autobiographical narrative to learn that during his period of so-called seclusion by the titular pond, Thoreau regularly accepted care packages delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mother? We read and re-read great stories because, historical or not, great literature has the power to change our lives and change the world. Put most concisely: Our Master Stories, our great Myths, are true, as Rabbi Larry Kushner likes to say, “not because they happened so much as because they happen” (paraphrased)-because the Master Stories continue to inspire, teach, and lead the way for people of faith who seek a connection to God’s presence in history and God’s ongoing engagement in our lives. At the same time, a healthy mistrust of Myths would serve us well--as would an eagerness to tear down a false ediﬁce. Learning the truth should not frighten a person whose faith
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is ﬁrm, whose faith transcends the literal and draws strength from the wellspring of the symbolic. Moreover, we need to diﬀerentiate between “Eternal Truth” or “Ethical Truth” and historical fact. “A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history,” Wolpe reminds us. “It is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us. That a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is an historical claim, and one cannot then cry ‘unfair’ when historians evaluate it” (Ibid). All the more should we confront with unﬂinching directness those who would misappropriate the Myth for unethical ends or political gain. Conﬂating “Master Story” with History, too many people mired in their Biblical literalism would use a reductionist Myth of Israelite manifest destiny--of mass Exodus and mass conquest of Canaan--to justify the enlargement of borders and the dispossession or marginalization of non-Jewish residents who also call the Holy Land home. Rather than deriving from our Master
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Story the quintessential message, “You shall not oppress the stranger… for you know the heart of the stranger,” they rely on utopian Biblical borders to lay claim to disputed territory -- even if it means that more than a few may end up designated Outsider, Sojourner, Stranger. And too many people would use a reductionist Thanksgiving Myth of Indian-Pilgrim cooperation and celebration to gloss over the real history between European settlers and Native Americans: a history of raids and cross-raids, of guns and germs, furs and ﬁshing, of internecine squabbles, of displacement, disenfranchisement and even genocide. This is not just a twenty-ﬁrst century problem. The early generations of Plymouth settlers did not hesitate to explain the obsolescence of the Natives as proof-positive of God’s providence, a vindication of European “civilization” over Native American “savagery,” a justiﬁcation of their worldview, their oﬃcial Myth, capital M. We need our Myths and we need to destroy them.
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Faith does not demand that we abdicate Reason or suppress critical thinking. The world needs more people of Reason who also orient themselves toward Faith, toward elevating the life of the spirit. A modern religion that embraces both Faith and Reason gives us powerful tools to address the challenges of our time. A modern religion that embraces both Faith and Reason gives us everything we could ever need in order to locate God’s presence in this glorious and confusing Universe, and to access our God-given faculties to address a shabby little world desperately in need of human hope and human help. May your Thanksgiving radiate, around your table and into the world, the light of Harmony, Peace, and, above all, Truth. One Myth, however, you have my permission to leave be. No matter what, tell the chef that the turkey was delicious.
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