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Lessons From Leftover Turkey

By: Anna Bearman | November 26, 2023

Lessons From Leftover Turkey

By Rabbi Micah Greenstein | Daily Memphian

Thanksgiving weekend traditionally evokes the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the meaning of gratitude and the importance of freedom.

However, the most significant spiritual message of Thanksgiving is not a consequence of its history. Perhaps the primary message is in the turkey — more precisely, the lessons that evolve out of leftover turkey.

Leftover turkey is a uniquely American phenomenon. Somehow the phrase itself captures the spirit of the day after the great day. No longer than it takes those around the table to offer a prayer or a few words of gratitude, the assembled family and guests demolish the beautiful golden-brown bird surrounded by and stuffed with all good things.

On the day after Thanksgiving, however, all that is left is a bony carcass and a few scraps of meat. The menu for the next week will be sliced turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, even turkey burgers.

Leftover turkey: The message in that phrase for all of us is not necessarily self-evident, but it is urgent. The lesson far exceeds its reference to Thanksgiving. Almost always, whatever high points we reach in our lives leave an empty place in our hearts once they have passed. Sorrow follows joy, night follows day, problems tag after happiness.

For every perfect turkey we savor, the next day is a reworked remnant of leftover turkey.

Each of us has walked through life feasting with the dearest people we know. Suddenly, the next day they are taken from us. They vanish from sight, and we are left with lonely leftover memories.

One day, we are young, healthy and vigorous. Suddenly, the scene is a hospital, for days or sometimes even weeks. We learn to live with aches and pains we never dreamed would be ours. We learn to be patient through injuries and illnesses and to find faith even in serious hardship.

The real test of a good cook may very well be not what he or she serves for Thanksgiving. The real challenge is how well the cook handles the leftover turkey. It’s no trick to please a crowd with a fresh roasted bird or a grilled steak and to throw away the leftovers. All that takes is plenty of money.

The ultimate test is to take the leftovers and transform them into something attractive, appetizing and tasty. It’s easy to be bright and cheery, to be up and around and ready for anything when we are in good health. What happens when good health slips away and we are forced to push ourselves for even the smallest effort?

It’s easy to be joyful when things are going well. It’s easy to smile and be upbeat when we are surrounded by loving family and friends. What happens when the house is quiet? Spiritual living grapples with the scraps of our lives and somehow simmers whatever befalls us into a dish with aroma and flavor.

This is the larger spiritual significance of this weekend’s Thanksgiving holiday. We are summoned to pick up the pieces of our lives left after all the celebration is over. Like every holiday with its buildup before and its letdown that follows, life, too, carries us to its peaks and its valleys, its victories and its defeats, its joys and its sorrows, its sweetness and its bitterness. However uneventful the coming week may be, we can revel in the feast we had just a few days ago.

What matters most about this Thanksgiving holiday, therefore, is not just the history, but the menu — and not just the menu on the table. but the menu we imagine with the leftovers.

We learn more from what we eat than anything else about Thanksgiving. Maybe that’s what the old saying means when in search of the truth we often stop and say, “Let’s talk turkey.”

Happy Thanksgiving again, everyone.

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