Why Israel needs a Thanksgiving

A marriage, family, community or country devoid of gratitude will certainly fall apart.

By CHAIM STEINMETZ
November 22, 2005 22:03
turkey 88

turkey 88. (photo credit: )

 
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As an American living in Canada, I get pretty homesick on Thanksgiving. Yes, Canada has a Thanksgiving too, but it's a pretty tepid affair, basically an October rerun of Labor Day. To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pret ty simple: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it feels like a national holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving has a unique message that makes it the most popular national holiday in the US, even more popular than America's Independence Day, the Fourth of J uly. The genius of Thanksgiving is that it bases patriotism on gratitude. Other national holidays around the world are grandiose, flag-waving affairs intended to glorify the country and inspire loyalty in the citizenry. These holidays feature public even ts, military parades and fireworks displays. Thanksgiving is a far simpler affair; it is always celebrated at home. It is about gratitude for a home, a happy family, a harvest and, at the same time, gratitude for a safe country. This minimalist approa ch to patriotism resonates with everyone because countries don't have to be great to be appreciated; they just have to be a place we can call home. The rabbis of the Mishna understood this, and said one must even pray on behalf of inferior governments b ecause without them "one person would devour the other alive." Patriotism rooted in simple gratitude will have the widest appeal. The Sefer Hahinuch, a 13th-century theological work, sees gratitude as the foundation of all relationships, including belief in God. Indeed, in a gratitude-free world, pessimism reigns. And pessimism is a harsh corrosive, with negativity about life in general infiltrating into, and undermining, all relationships. A marriage, a family or a community devoid of gratitude will cer tainly fall apart. This is true of a country as well. Perhaps the one thing the noisier ideologues of the Right and Left in Israel agree upon is pessimism. Both believe the country is falling apart; they simply quibble over who is to blame. Extremists on the Left invoke the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to demonstrate that the Right are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists who hate democracy. Extremists on the Right invoke the disengagement from Gaza to demonstrate that the Left are a bunch of appeasing, heartless people who throw their fellow Jews out of their homes. However, if you remove the political particulars these arguments are essentially the same: "The country is falling apart. And you [the other side] are the traitor who is to blame." Ironic ally, this pessimism is self-fulfilling. The greatest danger to Israel is not the Right or the Left or the religious or the secular, but rather the way all segments of society relate to each other. These nasty divides are the product of sincere people doing their best to prevent the destruction of Israel. But their pessimism adds a dangerously bitter edge to their rhetoric, transforming political opponents into personal enemies and democratically-elected prime ministers into "traitors," or worse. As an American expatriate in Canada I should not be giving sermons to people who have invested their lives in the Jewish homeland. But any casual observer of the Israeli scene is aware that in political and public discourse pessimism prevails over gratitude. THIS IS why Israel needs a Thanksgiving. A day to remember all the blessings we can be grateful for: for freedom and prosperity, for being able to live in the country of our ancestors, for a democracy which, with all its flaws, is still a true democracy. Anyone who forgets this should visit one of Israel's neighbors. Most importantly, we need to thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel. Just 150 years ago the probability of a State of Israel emerging was less than a Martian invasion. Had our ghe tto-dwelling ancestors been able to see movies of contemporary Israel, they would have assumed the Messiah had arrived. An Israeli Thanksgiving would allow the sense of wonder previous generations had about the Jewish state to be reclaimed. Perhaps, if w e got intoxicated with gratitude, we might begin to appreciate our brothers and sisters. Maybe the supporters of the Left would show gratitude for the Right's intense love for this country. And supporters of the Right would show gratitude for the Left's i ntense concern for social justice. Maybe the haredim would appreciate how secular Jews have built a safe and prosperous country; maybe the secularists would appreciate the profound Jewish spirituality the haredim bring this country. Maybe we'd learn to ap preciate each other. On Israeli Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish peo ple. The writer is a rabbi at Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec, and an editorial board member of Edah, the advocacy group for modern Orthodoxy. ˇ

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