At first I thought I would speak this morning about Ferguson Missouri. Since August 9th when the African American young man, Michael Brown, was killed, the whole country was plunged into a state of racial turmoil and confusion. I wasn’t going to comment on the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson. It was, as I understand it, a somewhat racially balanced jury who heard a great deal of evidence and made their decision. Regardless of the decision, it certainly was tragic that a young man’s life ended in such a way.
What I was going to speak about was the violence and rioting that followed that only added to the tragedy and the reaction of the media and pundits. It seems that we’ve learned precious little since the Watts riots of 1965 or the Rodney King riots of 1991. Many businesses will not be able to rebuild their stores or get insurance and so many will be forced to give up and close—the investment of a lifetime gone up in flames. It’s nothing new. The Detroit riot of 1967 was the beginning of the end of Motown and it was decades before Washington D.C. recovered from the riots and arson following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What’s most disturbing to me is how bad behavior is overlooked and excused…because there’s no justification for this kind of behavior.
Coming in the wake of the Synagogue Massacre in Har Nof, Jerusalem, last week, I couldn’t help but think how this all seems too familiar—how Palestinian riots and terrorism is overlooked and excused in the very same way by the very same people. One image said it all to me. It was a huge protest banner in Ferguson that stretched from one side to the other of the street held on 2 poles that read in very large letters: “Occupation is a Crime. Ferguson to Palestine. Resist US Racism. Stand up! Boycott Israel.” What does Ferguson have to do with Israel? And then there was another one that read: “From Ferguson to Palestine Resistance is Justified!”
No, there is no justification for violent, criminal behavior! No matter how poorly the police in Ferguson were treating African Americans, it doesn’t justify burning down and destroying businesses—most of whom employ African Americans. And no matter how poorly one may think the government of Israel treats the Palestinians, it does not justify slaughtering helpless Jews as they pray!
What’s needed—especially on this Thanksgiving weekend—is a new sense of thanks and appreciation. I’m not justifying any bad behavior on the part of Ferguson’s police or the State of Israel, but shouldn’t one be grateful for how far racial relations have come in America in the almost 50 years since Watts? Haven’t we elected an African American President? Shouldn’t Palestinians at least acknowledge how much better off they are in the West Bank and Gaza with Israel then they were under Jordan and Egypt? Neither situation is perfect and both need improvement, but neither situation justifies such violence, such bad behavior.
This is Thanksgiving weekend and I think it has a special personal message for each of us. And so I won’t speak about any more about Ferguson. Instead I’d like to speak about how each of us should develop a new sense of thanks and appreciation in our own lives. If fact, in today’s Torah reading (Gen. 29:35), when Leah gives birth to her 4th son she says, Hapaam odeh et Hashem, al keyn kara shmo Yehuda, “this time I will thank Gd, and so she called his name Yehuda, Judah,” which means “one who thanks.” We are called Jews because we are descendants of Judah and our heritage, therefore, is to be thanking beings.
In a striking comment on the 10 plagues in Egypt, the Midrash notes that with the last 7 plagues, the Torah says that Moses lifted up his hand to bring the plagues. But with the 1st 3 it says that it was Aaron that lifted up his hand to bring the plagues. Why? The Midrash answers: The 1st plague was against the Nile, and the 2nd and the 3rd were against the sand. And when it came time to bring them, Moses said to Gd: “I can’t do it! I can’t hit the Nile because when I was a baby, my mother hid me in a crib that floated on the Nile. The Nile saved my life! And now that I am grown-up, how can I hit that which once protected me? And When I grew up, I went out and saw an Egyptian hitting an Israelite. I hit that Egyptian and killed him, and then I buried him in the sand. How can I now hit that which covered up my crime? I can’t do it! I’m sorry, Gd, but you’ll have to get someone else.”
I love this Midrash because the lesson it teaches is that if Moses was grateful even to inanimate objects…if Moses was grateful even many years later…then how much more so should we be grateful—to the people who gave us life and to those who cared for us and taught us and those who helped make us what we are?
This is such a simple thought, such an obvious thought, and yet it is one that must be deserves re-enforced again and again—especially around Thanksgiving—because we are creatures who tend to be ungrateful and forget those who have helped us.
Do any of you know who Alben Barkeley was? He was vice-president of the United States under Harry Truman. He had a delightful sense of humor and liked to tell the story of how he was once out campaigning for re-election and saw one of his constituents and asked: “Jed, are you going to vote for me this year?”
Jed said: “Well, I’m not sure.”
“Not sure?” asked Barkeley. “How can you be not sure? Don’t you remember 6 years ago when your brother was out of a job and I got him one?”
“Yep, I remember that,” said Jed.
“And do you remember the time, 4 years ago, when your uncle was in trouble with the law and I fixed things up?” “Yep, I remember,” said Jed.
“And do you remember the time 2 years ago, when you needed a loan from the bank and I got it for you?”
“Yep, I remember,” said Jed.
“So how can you not vote for me?” asked Barkeley. Jed replied: “Well, I remember all those things, but what have you done for me lately?”
Jed’s not the only one who thinks like that—and that’s why we need to take the lesson of this Midrash to heart.
Richard Orloff once wrote a fascinating article (Reconstructionist Magazine) about how he came to Gd called: “My Gd and How I Got there.” It came with the realization that gratitude is the essence of religion, and he figured out that like everything else worthwhile in life, it doesn’t just happen. It takes training and practice and discipline and exercise, so he developed the custom of writing “thank you” on the memo line on the lower left-hand side of the checks that he wrote.
When he made out the check to pay for the water bill, he would stop and think about how precious water is and how much the city has to do to make sure that the water is pure and safe and then he would put “thank you” on the check. And when he paid his mortgage, he stopped to think of how much paper work the bank had to do and that without the bank he wouldn’t have a home and so he would write “thank you” on the check. He drew the line when it came to paying traffic tickets—somehow he just couldn’t muster enough gratitude to write it there. But he was right. Saying thank you is a big part of what it means to be religious.
-So when you find a parking spot downtown, don’t just say: “Aha! I beat somebody to it,” but say: “Thank you, Hashem.”
-When you wake up in the morning and you’re able to stand and walk and talk, say: “Thank you, Hashem. With all my troubles, I’m still ahead of the game.”
-And when you see someone who helped you on your way, who taught you or guided you or befriended you, do as Moses did—remember and be grateful.
My mentor, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, has a great insight to the famous question in Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (4:1): Azehu ashir? Hasomeyach b’chelko, “Who is truly rich? One who is satisfied with what his lot.” Rabbi Blech points out the word ashir, “rich,” is actually an acronym for 3 words: the ayin stands for eynayim, “eyes,” the shin stand for shinayim, “teeth,” and the reysh stands for raglayim, “feet.” Who is rich? Rabbi Blech answers, “Whoever has eyes that work, teeth that work and legs that work. If you have money besides, that’s extra. If you have these, be grateful! And to this let us all say, Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis