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Dvar Torah-  Hayyei Sarah

12/22/2016 11:01:21 AM


The question isn’t just what am I thankful for, but what are WE thankful for?

What are your family customs on Thanksgiving?

How many people in this room start their Thanksgiving meal with a question that goes around the table? What are you thankful for? Gratitude is a major Jewish value – it’s part of our daily prayers – we are forced to ask this question. But I want to challenge us this year and ask another question, are we asking the correct question – what am I thankful for? Should we be asking a different question today? Today, I want to challenge us to ask a different question, that perhaps this holiday does not compel us to ask what am I thankful for, but rather, what are WE thankful for.

Thanksgiving is really an unprecedented holiday for the Jewish people living in America, more so than any other holiday. In other countries, national holidays centered around religion. For example, in 1800’s Germany, it was not uncommon for German Jews to have Christmas trees, nor is it uncommon in Russia. But Thanksgiving, according to even most Orthodox poskim, is a secular holiday, but its not a holiday like a July 4th. We do not necessarily gather around patriotism – but around the concept of gratitude. The question is, what are WE thankful for? How inclusive of all Americans is this holiday?

The historical event that we connect Thanksgiving to is a meal that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans shared after a long winter in 1622/23, and the actual meal of unity took place on July 30, 1623. So we see that the original Thanksgiving was a shared meal that marked an abundance of food. But, we have to understand what led up to this event. William Bradford, who would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony, led his Pilgrims in a prayer upon their arrival in 1620, leading them in Psalm 107, but in this speech, he references a prayer that I’ll read in his English:

And from this Psalme, and this verse of it, the Hebrues have this Canon; Foure must confess (unto God) The sick, when he is healed; the prisoner when he is released out of bonds; they that goe down to sea, when they are come up (to land); and wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land. And they must make confession before ten men, and two of them wise men, Psal. 107. 32. And the manner of confessing and blessing is thus; He standeth among them and blesseth the Lord, the King eternal, that bounteously rewardeth good things unto sinners…

This might sound familiar to you, because it is Birkhat HaGomel - open to page 146. Bradford said this prayer because he likened the Pilgrims to the Children of Israel who were crossing Sinai on their way to the Promised Land. It wasn’t just the journey that mattered, and not just the destination, but where they came from - from a narrow place, from persecution.

Who in here remembers what its like to be a persecuted Jew? Thankfully, very few of us do. But our ancestors who came to this country came just like the Pilgrims - with that narrow place in their minds.

In our parashah, we read about Avraham who fulfills a dream when he buys land in Israel. Avraham is known as the Ivri - we know it as Hebrew. Ivri means ‘from the other side’ - the other side of the Jordan - Avraham was a stranger and he brought that strangeness with him to the land. In our parashah, Avraham states the following when he meets the Hittites:

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃

“I am an alien and a visitor among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

And then he asks for an introduction, to Ephron son of Zohar because he wants to buy the land at full price. But Ephron says, take it for free. But Avraham insists that he pay the price of the land – you might be thinking – Abraham was a man of great faith, but boy, what he was a lousy businessman! Who pays for something that was offered for free!

Why does Avraham insist that he buy the land at full price? Because this ger toshav, an alien and visitor wants to be an equal, and he will pay whatever price it takes, but he knows it isn't free – that he must pay a price to be an owner, to cross the river, to be free.

There is something that almost all Americans have in common – all of our ancestors came over here on a boat. Almost all of our ancestors are Ivrim, people who crossed over from another place. We crossed over for opportunity, and most of us, for freedom. It is here, in America, where our ancestors had a chance to be equal, but they had to cross over, and crossing over isn't easy. It meant leaving everything you knew behind.

Leopold Kompert, a German-Jewish writer in the mid-1800's, saw hope for Jews in Europe, that after the emancipation, they would be equals. But after anti-Jewish riots in Europe in 1848, he became convinced that there was only one place for a Jew to go – America.

In an essay he published, Off To America, he writes, “We know all your objections and all your answers! . . . Do you not have any other advice for us, you ask, but to take up once again the wanderer’s staff and with wife and child seek a far and foreign land? Shall we leave the native soil which has born and fed us, and in which we have buried our dead? I sense in these words something of Egypt’s fleshpots; yes, I, too, smell the flavor of the golden soups and juicy roast—but I also see the people who are stirring the flames and who are extracting their daily bread from the fires of hatred, of prejudice, and of narrow- mindedness. By God, may he who has a penchant for these things stay behind and feed himself!...The idea is not new. This we know; but it is practical. . . . The purpose of emigration is the finding of a new fatherland and the gain of immediate freedom! Thousands before you have taken this step and are still taking it! And only a dis- proportionate few have regretted it. The God of your forefathers will watch over you. He will guide you safely across the sea and through the first difficulties of your new life!”

We are a country that values the individual and our personal rights, but it is during this holiday that we must as the question, what are WE thankful for? And the answer is that we are connected by a journey over water – we are all Ivrim, those who crossed over, from a past we could have stayed in, but held back, to a future of freedom and opportunity.

At the beginning of this talk, I asked you a question, what were your Thanksgiving traditions from your family tables? It wasn't until this Thanksgiving that I learned that our family did not celebrate Thanksgiving until I was born. I am sure there are many reasons for it, but the message to me is clear – on Thanksgiving, immigrants do not have to be reminded of how they crossed over, but their children and grandchildren, who did not, must be reminded of the journey their parents took.

On Thanksgiving, we must remind ourselves of the past, the narrow place we came from – we must be grateful for our identity – as the others, the strangers, and remember to welcome those who just got here, those who are fleeing the narrow places of the present – and we must be grateful for being free, because never before in world history has there been a land where we are accepted along with all the other OTHERS. That is the beauty of this country. By recognizing our OTHERNESS, all of us make this place more of a home for all.

This land is your land, this land is our land -

So while its good to be thankful for the little and big things in your life, and my life, this secular holiday is a time to hold on to the gratitude we all equally feel together on this land.

Thu, April 18 2019 13 Nisan 5779