Creating Our Own Narratives: Thanksgiving, Jacob and Ferguson

I imagine many of you are familiar with the traditional story of Thanksgiving that you learned about in kindergarten where, in 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people came together to give thanks and share a meal. However, not many of you may be aware of the events that led to the first official “Day of Thanksgiving.”

As a holiday, Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had gone to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Conn. The fighting led to the enslavement and massacre of over 700 men, women, and children from the New England-based tribe, a bloody precursor to what would be centuries of strife for native peoples in the U.S.

While families across the country indulged on their Thanksgiving Day feasts, hundreds gathered at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth yesterday to commemorate a different tradition: the National Day of Mourning.  The event, held annually on Thanksgiving, is meant to honor Native American ancestors who died due to the European invasion, and to expose the bloody history behind the November holiday.

I find it interesting that one historical event can have two very different narratives.  For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a chance to celebrate our bounty.  But for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a symbol of all that they have lost.

This week we read about our patriarch, Jacob, and his struggles with his father in law Laban.  Although, arguing with in-laws is nothing new, especially during this festive season, it presents us again with the idea of differing narratives.  From Jacob’s perspective, he has been a long suffering servant, “These twenty years I have spent in your service,” he says to Laban, “your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock.

Often scorched heat ravaged me by day and frost by night.  Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served fourteen for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages time and again.  Had not the God of my father… been with me, you would have sent me away empty handed!” (Gen 31:38-42).  We, as the descendants of Jacob, see things from his point of view.  We even have a line in the Passover Haggadah, “Arami oveid avi – An Aramean (Laban) sought to destroy my father,” which speaks of Jacob’s overcoming adversity and succeeding in spite of his ruthless father-in-law.

However, there is another, very different narrative in this same parsha presented by Laban.  Upon confronting Jacob, who has run away, Laban says, “What did you mean by keeping me in the dark and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword?  Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me?  I would have send you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre.  You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters goodbye!” (Gen 31:26-28)  Laban feels that he has been more than fair with Jacob and that ungrateful son-in-law of his took advantage of him and ran away like a thief in the night.  Again, we see the same events presented in two very different narratives.

Today, there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights.

But if we based our knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, we would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, who is on the front lines of the protests, shared, “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.”

In choosing to create a narrative of violence, the media reinforces the image of the angry black man. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them as someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.

Rabbi Talve explains that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic, institutional racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we can create a different narrative.

I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and recognize the racism that still exists in our country.

We can change the narrative.  One opportunity, through the congregation, is with P.O.W.E.R., Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, our multi-faith community organizing initiative.  We are having those serious conversations about race and justice in Philadelphia.  An interfaith group from POWER went down to Ferguson to stand in solidarity with the protesters.  And POWER recently compiled data as part of education campaign looking at race and education.

While mourning on Thursday at Plymouth Rock, The United American Indians of New England expressed solidarity with those protesting in Ferguson, Missouri.  They, perhaps more than anyone know, understand the power of narrative.  We as Jews, are the people of the book, we are also a people of narrative.  We express our values, our hopes and our dreams through our own narrative of Torah.  Just as Jacob and Laban remind us in this weeks parsha to see one set of events from multiple perspectives, so may we, be open to the narrative of those protesting in Ferguson and across the country.  May we truly hear their story and do our part to repair the brokenness in this country.