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Thanksgiving

The stranger immediately stood out among the regulars at morning minyan, a daily Jewish prayer service. He was tall, young, and athletic. He carried a guitar and a backpack. He stashed his guitar in the corner, pulled tefillin out of his backpack, and joined right in. Since this was a Thursday, the minyan service included a Torah reading. As was the custom in this congregation, the stranger was offered an aliyah, the honor of being called up to the Torah. He chanted the blessings and then asked to chant (leyn) the Torah portion as well. He did a beautiful job.

Today was Thanksgiving, and Joe Goldstein was at minyan this morning. He came a few times a month, usually when someone he knew was observing yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Today he was observing the yahrzeit of his mother. His son, Sam, a high school student, had no interest in joining him. A younger daughter, Rina, was home too. At 11, she was too young to be counted in the minyan. His older daughter, Miriam, was flying home from college today. He was to meet her flight at noon. The family would go to a high school football game and then have Thanksgiving dinner.

After minyan, people stayed for coffee and donuts since nobody was rushing off to work on Thanksgiving. They gathered around the stranger, this young man who could leyn Torah so beautifully. His name was Ronnie. “I’m a composer and musician. I write and perform Jewish songs,” he explained. He was on his way to a concert he was to give this coming weekend, but his car broke down. It wouldn’t be fixed until tomorrow, so here he was, at the nearest minyan he could find.

They talked for quite a while. Joe liked this young man, who was strong, smart, warm hearted, and enthusiastic about being Jewish. Ronnie offered to play some of his songs. They were very moving. Ronnie sang about Jewish values and Torah, and made them exciting through his songs. Joe invited Ronnie to join his family for Thanksgiving. “It would be a mitzvah if you would be our guest,” Joe added.

Joe’s wife, Carol, was delighted to have a guest for Thanksgiving dinner. Joe wasn’t sure how Sam would react. Sam didn’t like a lot of things his father liked, especially Jewish things. Ronnie, on the other hand, had great ruach, Jewish spirit. Luckily, the two seemed to hit it off right away. Maybe it had something to do with the guitar; Sam liked music. “Ronnie is cool,” Sam whispered to his father at one point. Rina fell in love with Ronnie immediately. She thought he was a rock star.

“I’m off to get Miriam at the airport,” Joe announced as he left the house later that morning. Sam, Ronnie, and Rina were busy entertaining themselves. Carol seemed to have everything in the kitchen under control. This was shaping up to be a better Thanksgiving than he had expected, Joe thought as he got into the car. And, if Miriam and Ronnie hit it off together, well, that might be nice, too.

At the airport, a crowd milled around the gate where the passengers were supposed to arrive. The sign said Miriam’s flight, number 772, was delayed. The minutes ticked by. Everyone was getting impatient. “What’s the word on flight 772?” Joe asked an airline representative.

“There’s been a problem. There will be an announcement soon,” she said, rushing away.

“What do you mean?” Joe called to her, but she had ducked through a door. Joe started worrying, fearing the worst.

A few minutes later an announcement came over the airport loudspeakers. It said Flight 772 had experienced problems, a fire on board, and made an emergency landing at another airport.

Joe felt sick as he waited for more details, but none came. He tried to talk with airline people. They didn’t have any more information. “We’ll let you know as soon as we hear more,” one told him.

Everyone was trying to call home. Joe waited with the crowd by a bank of telephones. Finally his turn came. Carol answered the phone. “There is a problem,” Joe said immediately.

“I know,” said Carol. “Miriam just called. She got off the plane safely. She’s getting on a bus. She won’t arrive until eight tonight, but she’s safe.”

“Thank God,” said Joe. He left the airport and headed home. It could have been a disaster, but Miriam was safe. He thanked God over and over again as he drove home.

When Joe arrived at home, he found a mixture of joy and relief and also a lingering fear. Ronnie had taken out his guitar and was playing T’filat Haderech, a prayer for travelers, a haunting Debbie Friedman song. Rina and Ronnie sang the chorus. The refrain grew in intensity with each repetition. Even Sam joined in.

“I guess dinner will be late,” Carol announced. “I hope you don’t mind,” she added, turning to Ronnie.

“Not at all. In fact, I was thinking that today would be an especially good time to do some extra tzedakah, charitable deeds,” Ronnie replied. “Holidays are always a good time to do tzedakah.”

“I thought we were going to the football game,” said Sam.

“You can go to the game. That’s cool. Just drop me off at this family shelter I know. I once did a benefit concert there. It’s not far, and I know they need extra help in the kitchen today,” Ronnie suggested. “I can fill up the hours until Miriam arrives by helping others who are less fortunate. It’s actually kinda fun. You can pick me up after the game,” he added.

The family was surprised. They never really thought about doing tzedakah just like that. They contributed money to charity, of course, but they would never think of going off to do that kind of mitzvah, a good deed, on the spur of the moment. “Doing mitzvot are one of the neat things about being Jewish. And doing a sudden mitzvah gives you a real high,” Ronnie continued. The family decided to skip the football game and go with Ronnie, except Carol who stayed home in case Miriam called again.

The people at the family shelter were delighted to see Ronnie and the Goldsteins, who went right to work helping the kitchen crew. They washed dishes, served up the food, carried trays, and lugged out the garbage. The regular kitchen crew really appreciated the extra help. Later everybody–staff, volunteers, and shelter residents–mingled together. Rina and Sam read stories to some of the little children. Ronnie sang a few songs. After they cleaned up, Joe delivered Ronnie, Sam, and Rina at home and left to pick up Miriam at the bus station. On the ride home, Sam declared: “That was all right.” To Sam, ‘all right’ was a big compliment. Rina agreed.

It was a joyful reunion when Miriam walked into the house. Carol cried as she ushered everybody into the dining room. “I guess we should sit down. This was meant to be eaten hours ago,” she apologized.

Sam and Rina were ready to jump right into the meal. “Can we say a few prayers first?” asked Ronnie. “I have a lot to thank God for this Thanksgiving. I guess we all do.”

The family seemed confused. Ronnie led Sam, Rina, Miriam, Carol, and Joe into the kitchen, took a cup from the cabinet and led them in the ritual washing of their hands and the recitation of the blessing, al ntilat yadayim. Sam and Rina seemed to think it was silly but went along.

Joe brought out a bottle of wine. “Since this is a holiday, let’s have some wine,” he said. Suddenly he added: ‘I guess we should do the blessing for wine.”

“Hey, I remember that blessing,” Sam offered. Miriam and Rina then added the blessing, the motzi, over the bread.

“Should we light candles too?” asked Carol.

“You can light candles if you light, but you don’t need to make a blessing. This isn’t Shabbat. But, you know, we can say the Shehechiyanu. It is always appropriate when we gather for a special occasion, and given everything that has happened today, this is a pretty special occasion,” replied Ronnie, glancing a Miriam. He recited the blessing in Hebrew and then in English: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, granting us life, sustaining us, and helping us to reach this day.

Everyone sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. “You treat Thanksgiving almost as if it were the Sabbath,” observed Joe.

“It is a lot like Shabbat, a day of thanks, when we can rest,” Ronnie said. “But Shabbat is much more wonderful.”

“What’s so great about the Sabbath? I always thought it was a drag.” Sam said.

“Shabbat is phat, the ultimate cool trip. You rest. You hang with friends. Nobody is under pressure to do anything or be anywhere. For one day each week, you just blow everything off,” Ronnie explained. “You know,” he continued, “God gave us Shabbat as the most wonderful gift, a gift we get week after week, but only if we’re smart enough to take it.”

“I dunno,” said Sam. “Seems weird.”

“Try it sometime,” Ronnie replied.

They went on and on talking around the Thanksgiving dinner table. They talked about holidays and Shabbat, about the Torah, about mitzvot and tzedakah — things the family rarely talked about. Thinking back, Joe couldn’t remember a better Thanksgiving, ever. He was sad when it ended and Ronnie left. Joe wished Thanksgivings like this came more than once a year.

The next day, Friday, was just another day. Carol and the kids went shopping. Joe missed the spirit — the ruach — Ronnie had brought. He wished some of it would have stuck with his family. Maybe he had hoped for too much from Ronnie’s brief visit.

Joe was feeling glum when a package arrived. He opened the package and found fresh flowers, a bottle of wine, two challahs, and Shabbat candles. At the bottom of the package was an audio cassette with a note attached. It read: Thanks for inviting a stranger to share your Thanksgiving. Take the gift of Shabbat for yourself and have Thanksgiving and more every week. The note was signed by Ronnie.

When Carol and the kids returned, they popped the cassette into the player. They heard Ronnie strum a few chords on the guitar and start singing. The room filled with his voice. The song captured the peace and joy and wonder of Shabbat. Ronnie then slid into the chorus — familiar words from the Kabbalat Shabbat service: L’cha dodi likrat kalah. P’nei Shabbat n’kablah….

Enveloped by the moving song and its ancient words, the family welcomed this Shabbat and, in the months and years to come, many more Shabbats into their hearts, enriching each of their lives every week. After that, whenever Joe thought about Thanksgiving, he remembered Ronnie, who showed them how to experience Shabbat. And, he was forever thankful.