December 14, 2018

Finding Gratitude in Terrible Times

Getting ready for Thanksgiving this year has required some real work. I’m not talking about prepping the turkey and baking pies. Amid all the chaos, vitriol and rage that surrounds us in our political discourse, people in our communities in California and across the U.S. have been severely tested by the worst of natural disasters and acts of hate.

The past month’s litany of events has left us reeling, wondering what could possibly come next.

Sandra and Jim, both 87 years old, spent the past couple of weeks sleeping at a friend’s house. Amid the worst wildfires in California history, they and thousands of residents in their community were forced to evacuate their Ventura County homes on Nov. 9. Dozens are confirmed dead and hundreds were still unaccounted for from communities extensively damaged or entirely destroyed by the Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California and the Woolsey Fire that has burned through the Santa Monica Mountains from Point Mugu to Malibu and Calabasas. Those who were able to escape the flames stayed at public facilities, hotels and motels, houses of worship or with relatives or friends. Some will never return to their homes, which are now cinders and ash. The lucky ones whose homes survived, like Sandra and Jim, have discovered that the soot and smoke were so intense that their residences will require extensive work to make them habitable again.

“The kind of effort required for this year’s Thanksgiving is the inner work of affirming courage and hope, of strengthening resilience, and refusing to be defined by rage or deprivation.”

On Nov. 7, the day before the Woolsey Fire broke out, college students Frank and Dennis decided they needed a break. They headed to the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks to enjoy its country music, good drinks and the fun and welcoming atmosphere it was known for. But their anticipated night of dancing and flirting turned into bloody tragedy. A man armed with a handgun illegally modified with an expanded magazine, entered the bar and murdered 12 people, killed himself and left 23 wounded or injured. Frank and Dennis escaped physical harm.

And, of course, there’s more.

• The shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Shabbat, Oct. 27, that killed 11. The alleged shooter espoused anti-Semitic views on social media.

• The shooting of two African-Americans that same day at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky by a white man who reportedly tried but failed to enter a nearby Black church moments earlier.

• The shouting of “Heil Hitler” by an audience member at a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Baltimore, which sent people heading for the exits. (The man later apologized, saying he had been drunk at the performance and was “ashamed” for the outburst.)

We have all witnessed the rapid rise of hate crimes, now carried out in the open as racists, anti-Semites, homophobes and sexists seem to believe they can now spew their hatred and impose their terror whenever they choose. During the recent midterm elections, candidates of mainstream political parties publicly advocated racial superiority, religious triumphalism, violence toward women or gays or people with special needs. That’s the new normal. And that is just here in the United States, just in the past few weeks.

Around the world, we are witnessing the alarming rise of extreme nationalist movements, predicated on a fascist notion of pure blood, racial supremacy or sheer intimidation and power. Deliberately organized assaults on entire ethnicities or regions are the daily strategy of Saudi Arabian, Russian and Chinese governments, just to name a few. In Washington, D.C., and from the far corners of the globe, the world seems more vicious, more deadly and more hateful as thousands of children remain forcibly separated from their parents and siblings, as ethnic minorities are subjected to a barrage of violence, deliberate disenfranchisement and explicit terror.

Is it possible that the only thing that unites us now is our sense of being under assault? Of being caricatured and misunderstood? Wherever we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, we find ourselves yelled at, belittled, despised and attacked.

Bad Timing, But the Time Is Now.

Amid all this chaos, vitriol and rage comes Thanksgiving. Of course, there are troubling aspects to its actual history, but the story we tell ourselves of this day is one of reaching across racial and ethnic lines, of an imagined paradise of harmony and shared purpose, of a bountiful meal of local foods and loving families, and above all — of gratitude.

“In giving and receiving love, we solidify our expansive joy and our soul-strengthening connections.”

When President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the United States was in a similar state of darkness — riven by a war between those who would maintain a brutal system of racial enslavement even at the price of national union, and those who would oppose them. In the depths of that conflict, the bloodiest war (per capita) in American history, Lincoln understood the need to lift our eyes above the soul-wearying reality that had been forced upon us, and instead to focus our hearts and hopes on what might yet be possible. He drew our attention, prophetic leader that he was, on the gap between God’s vision of what we were called to be and the sorry mendacity of what we had allowed our reality to become. He understood that only by planting our imaginations and our determination in what might be, what must be, could we hope to mobilize the resilience and the courage needed to make that better tomorrow a reality.

The kind of effort required for this year’s Thanksgiving is the inner work of affirming courage and hope, of strengthening resilience, and refusing to be defined by rage or deprivation. The effort that also calls us is the outer work of building community and alliances across communal divides, of modeling a renewed level of civility and compassion (and then demanding that others do so as well), of standing for and with the despised and the marginalized. And then, the capstone to this effort is the determination to live along two simultaneous tracks: to peel back the hardened shell encasing our hearts so we remain open to feeling the pain of others and responding to it, and also cultivating the deep interiority that lets us celebrate our private joys —not as a selfish distraction but as a fountain of renewal and connection. We don’t get a second chance: the time to enjoy this gift of life is now. And the time to give back to others so that they can do the same is — you guessed it — now.

There’s a lot to do, so let’s get started.

The Inner Work

Like everything in creation, we have an interiority — our character, temperament, biology — that requires and demands our attention. And we have an exteriority — the ways we interact with the world around us and the people around us. As we organize ourselves to engage others with compassion, justice and love, we must also attend to our own inner lives. How we do that, and whether we do that, is both a choice and a commitment. We choose to focus our energy and our attention on what we have, not what we lack; on the loves we share, not those denied; on simple joys and the miracle of life itself.

To maintain that focus takes real effort and strength. It isn’t easy to maintain our perspective when all of us could easily tell our life stories as victims, underappreciated and overburdened. Every single one of us could narrate our lives through a prism of deprivation and hurt, and there is more than enough evidence to justify that narrative.

The danger, of course, is that in surrendering to that version of our own story we make it self-fulfilling. All we will notice is what we don’t have, what we can’t do, and that will blind us to all we have, to all we love, to the possibilities still beckoning and luring us. Giving in to a pity party locks us in as victims (not that we aren’t victimized in different ways). But being victimized and telling our story as heroes, as people capable of rising above it to wrest meaning, joy and triumph from the garbage thrown our way is radically different than letting the ways we are victimized turn us into victims. We do not have to choose to be victims.

Think, for a moment, of the example of our people throughout the ages. Despised and persecuted throughout the Medieval period, Jews nonetheless told an exalted story of a people on a mission to proclaim the prophetic voice of spirit, universal harmony, human dignity and holiness to this wounded planet. We might have been poor and assaulted, but we saw ourselves as children of the Most High, and we clung to our Torah as a life raft that could float us above the wreckage of bigotry, ignorance and violence. Jews didn’t ignore the deadly reality of anti-Semitism and hate. But we retained our power to contextualize it. In construing our story as heroes rather than as victims, we made that perspective real for ourselves and our children, and played a disproportionate role in the ongoing struggles for enlightenment, liberty and decency. Our telling made it so.

Even today, we can choose to give in to despair and fear. We can allow the bullies and the bigots to define how the tale is told. But if we do that, they win. Thanksgiving, like Jewish holy moments such as the Sabbath, invite us to narrate on our own terms: think Hanukkah, if you will. Ignorant bigots tried to roll back the clock on pluralism, diversity and religious freedom, yet we refused to give in. That resistance rolled back their hate, as love always does. We told the tale through the prism of our values and our vision until that telling became the meaning we derived from its time, our agenda for the present and the bequest for future generations.

So the inner work of Thanksgiving, this year and every year, is to refuse to let the bigots set the terms, to deny the haters their version of reality. Instead, we gather to celebrate a renewal of freedom, gratitude for life itself, and the chance to sit with those we love, confident that marinating in their love is the first step toward reclaiming a world of justice. Thanksgiving is a dress rehearsal for the inclusive banquet that our work will make possible. It is practice in not hardening our hurts into a self-perpetuating grudge story. The inner work is to celebrate in advance, and then to turn to the outer work of building a world worth celebrating.

The Outer Work

As we insist on seeing ourselves as heroes and our story as greater than just the doleful listing of our wounds; as we focus on the love we are privileged to share, the joys that come our way, and the ways we are able to surpass the expectations of our naysayers; we transition from the inner work to the task that lies beyond: to take that harvest of joy, contentment and love, and to shine it out in the world.

No Jew is every truly alone. Indeed, no human is either. Common to our mammalian stock, we are who we are in companionship with those who have loved and nurtured us and with those whom it is our delight to love and nurture. In giving and receiving love, we solidify our expansive joy and our soul-strengthening connections.

“Precisely because the news is so bleak, precisely because there are dangerous forces of hatred prowling these times, we need to gird ourselves with the shield of community and the sword of justice, which is love embodied.”

Part of the opportunity of this Thanksgiving, set on the backdrop of such bleak vulgarity and self-interested intimidation, is to harness our love to strengthen the ties that make us human and allow us to resist. By feasting and rejoicing with those we love, by taking time during the weekend to volunteer to help those in need, we shine the liberating light of connection and meaning that can come only from relationships. We nurture, we care, we love. And in those acts of decency and
justice, we show ourselves and the world who we are meant to be. Compassion is as compassion does.

Precisely because the news is so bleak, precisely because there are dangerous forces of hatred prowling these times, we need to gird ourselves with the shield of community and the sword of justice, which is love embodied. Each time we stand together and act in harmony, we cause the light to shine that much more brightly, driving the bigots back into their swamps.

And it is not enough — not today, not tomorrow — to define community narrowly. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves behind the moat of family, or even exclusively of the people who look like us or who share our label. In this time when the haters seek to divide us, we are called to redouble our belonging across the divides. Tell the Thanksgiving story as you heard it as a child, but then tell it again from the perspective of a Native American, because we now know they are not outsiders to our story, they are part of our story. Tell the human story from the perspective of the women, the slaves, the LGBT person, the person with special needs, the poor, the rich, the fundamentalist, the worker. The more perspectives we bring to the telling, the more the story glitters, like a multifaceted diamond. Our differences are beautiful; they make us more fully human.

Not only must our telling of the tale encompass the millions, but we must, in this time of division, join hands together beyond our own communal lines. Can we strike up conversations with people we don’t agree with? Can we find common cause working for the shared uplift of each other, and in doing so, realize that we belong far more extensively than we had previously dared hope? If God is one, then so are God’s children. Let’s live the oneness.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is vice president.