I knew last week when I chose to speak about “Operation Pillar of Defense” and the war in Gaza that my annual Thanksgiving sermon would have to be a post Thanksgiving sermon, and so I half jokingly thought to myself that today I would speak about leftover turkey. Thanksgiving is such a special day, but what happens the day after? What are we left with? Leftover turkey!
Somehow the phrase itself captures the spirit of the day after the great day when the beautiful golden brown bird, stuffed to overflowing with dressing and surrounded by all good things, is hungrily devoured. Now, all that is left, according to the US Department of Agriculture, is 45 million bony carcasses and a few scraps of meat in the fridge. The menu this Shabbos in many homes is likely to be turkey salad, cold sliced turkey, turkey soup or even turkey hash.
I once read an article in the Wall St. Journal about leftover turkey called, “The Leftover Chef.” It opened with the story of Jill Onysko who apparently looks forward more to the meal of the day after Thanksgiving than to Thanksgiving dinner itself. She cooks up a batch of her famous turkey potpie layered with day-old mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, followed by a dessert of cranberry sauce Jell-O topped with sour cream and walnuts. “I can’t wait to have it every year,” she says. Other leftover turkey ideas mentioned in the article are turkey eggs benedict, turkey cobbler, Lemongrass-Ginger turkey and rice soup, and—this one I like—roasted turkey Italian meatballs (instead of pork).
“Leftover turkey,” is much in our stomachs and on our minds today and rightly so because there’s a message in it. Think about it. Just as day always gives way to night, the most joyous days of our lives cannot be sustained every day. Joy is often followed by sorrow, periods of happiness by problems. For every turkey we enjoy, there’s leftover turkey the next day.
One day we look across the campus, the street, the cafe, or the room and there he or she is. We stand side by side under the Chupa surrounded by our dear ones. Almost the next day, they’re snatched away and we are left with lonely memories. One day the house is filled with childish laughter, the joy of watching children grow up. We see them go off to college; we share in the joy of their marriage; we watch them settle in homes of their own. Our homes and hearts are empty nests—quiet, lonely and even sad. One day we’re young, healthy, vigorous. The next day it’s the doctor’s office and days in the hospital. We then have to learn to live with the aches and pains, to be patient through illness, and to limit ourselves because of serious illness.
Consider the victims of Hurricane Sandy. One day your life is fine and the next it’s completely overturned. And yet, the resiliency and spirit of the victims and the tens of thousands of volunteers demonstrate that they are learning to live the realization that nothing ever stays the same.
What the article in the Wall St. Journal makes clear is that the real test of a good cook is not what he/she serves for Thanksgiving, but rather how he/she handles the leftovers. It’s no trick to please a family with fresh roasted turkey and then throw away the leftovers. All that takes is little money. The test of a good cook is to take the leftovers and turn them into something worthwhile that’s attractive, appetizing and tasty.
It’s easy to be joyful when things are going well, when the money is rolling in. But when it’s bills that are coming in and money going out, how are we then? When we are surrounded by a loving family it’s easy to smile and be cheerful. But when we begin to lose them, or when they go off on their own…when all we have of life is leftovers—what then? Sooner or later most of us must make do with leftovers. If we do not learn to take the scraps of our lives and make them into something worthwhile, then all the rest of our lives we’ll just gnaw on bones and be consumed with bitterness. The test of a person is not what he does when life is good, but what he does with leftover turkey and to understand that even leftovers can be a blessing.
No one understood this better than father Jacob. Jacob’s life was filled with promise, but at almost every turn, Jacob seems to get the short end of the stick. It started at the very beginning. According to the Midrash, Jacob was supposed to be the 1st born, but in the womb his twin brother Esav pushed him out of the way and was born 1st. Jacob was born holding on to his heel, and so he was called, Yaakov, or “heel.”
Later his mother forced him to trick his father Isaac into giving him Esav’s blessing and that resulted in his having to run away to uncle Laban in Mesopotamia for 20 years because Esav brother swore to kill him. Jacob worked 7 years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel and was deceived into marrying her older sister Leah. Laban then deceived Jacob about his wages 10 times. After fleeing uncle Laban he returned home to find his brother coming to kill him. Later, when life finally, finally seemed to settle down, his favorite son Joseph was sold into slavery by his other sons and Jacob was left to assume he was dead.
Jacob—whose name was changed to Israel—never had it easy for long. He ate a diet of leftover turkey again and again. And yet, through each challenge he persevered and lived a full and rich life in spite of it all. Perhaps that’s why we are named after him. We are not called the Children of Abraham or Isaac. We are the Children of Israel. Rarely have w had it easy for long. We personify how to eat leftover turkey as we continue to give thanksgiving to Gd at the same time.
Giving thanks this year on thanksgiving was not easy because of the war in Gaza. But we now do have a ceasefire and calm is returning to Israel. It’s not the peace we want. It may only be the lull before another storm. Nevertheless we should be grateful for that. A colleague and friend, Rabbi Ed Farber from Aventura, Florida, came up with a list of things to be grateful for from last week’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” in Gaza. We should be grateful for:
- 1.The Iron Dome anti-missile system was incredibly successful—in fact it is the most successful system anywhere in the world and clearly minimized the damage and the death toll. Without it Israel would have had no choice but to immediately invade and to use overwhelming air power that would have resulted in very large numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza—something that the world would certainly not be tolerant of.
- 2.The support for Israel’s right to defend herself came from not just the United States but from all over Europe as well. Traditional enemies of Israel were for the most part quiet during the 1st week. Even the UN didn’t have an emergency meeting to condemn Israel.
- 3.Both the Democratic and Republican leadership were solidly behind and Congress passed unanimous resolutions of support.
- 4.The Obama administration was unconditionally supportive of Israel’s right to defend herself and even more importantly reminded the world that the United States places the blame for the current military conflict solely and squarely on the Hamas leadership which it labeled as a terrorist organization at every possible opportunity.
- 5.We live in a free country which not only allows us to express support for Israel but which finds the vast majority of the citizenry standing with us in support of Israel.
- 6.Our country continues to express its support of Israel not just in the political arena but by making Israel the largest recipient of foreign aid to the tune of 3.1 billion dollars. In addition the Administration has already sent and will request even more support for the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
- 7.Israel’s military is so powerful that the new Egyptian President was willing to broker a cease-fire between the hated Zionists and Hamas rather than risk any type of military confrontation and that Arabs consider it a victory when Israel decided to not decimate them in spite of their aggression. There wasn’t a peep out of Hezbollah to the north and everything was quiet in the West Bank.
Yes we should be thankful…thankful to be living at a time when, for the 1st time in 2,000 years, the Jews do not have to flee from those who seek to destroy us. Our enemies now fear us more than we fear them! We have so much to be thankful for—thankful that we are the people who do everything to keep innocent civilians alive. Our enemies are the people who do everything to kill innocent civilians. We are the people who cherish life. Our enemies are the people who glorify death.
And so let us proclaim every day the words of the Amida prayer that we are about to say in the Musaf service: Modim anachnu lach, “We give thanks to Thee, O Lrd”…al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu, “for Thy miracles which are always with us and for Thy marvelous goodness toward us at all times,” even if it comes in the guise of leftovers. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis