November 17, 2018

Emek Ha-Hodayah: The Valley of Gratitude

Chanukah and Thanksgiving don’t line up very well for me. Chanukah celebrates an unlikely military victory, of the “few against the many.” The closest rough equivalent to Chanukah in the American tradition is probably the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781. Had our government been established and centralized at that point, it might have actually issued an edict for days of praise and thanksgiving to God for salvation from the predatory British. It had been a long war. The closest Jewish equivalent to the American Thanksgiving is obviously Sukkot, the harvest festival. We are thankful for good crops, and by extension anything good that comes our way. 

I have a deep sense of the presence of the Holy, but a rather sketchy belief in divine providence. If I thought that God provided, then I would have to believe that God also does not provide. The latter seems objectionable to me, because I believe that God’s essence is goodness. Therefore I believe that God’s will for goodness is by and large interrupted when it gets down to our realm, except as it pertains to the inner life of human beings. Miracles happen, but they are unreliable, unpredictable and seem random. 

The miracle of Chanukah, so to speak, was not that the oil lasted eight days, clearly a fable of late origin. The thanksgiving prayer for Chanukah in the prayer book never mentions long-lasting oil as a reason for Chanukah. The reason for Chanukah is that we won a war and were then able to rededicate our defiled Sanctuary. The military victory was not one of overwhelming firepower, but of stalwartness, tenacity and the willingness to sacrifice. The miracle was one of human spirit. Men were willing to die for what appeared to be a lost cause, because dying in battle was preferable to whatever the next best thing was. 

It is hard for me to line up Chanukah and Thanksgiving. When I think of the food on my table, I attribute it more to the amazing success that a market economy has had on our remarkable accomplishment in growing and distributing food. God created nature; it is up to us to do the rest. Am I thankful for the symbiosis of hard working agricultural workers, efficient small businesses and corporations, and a government doing its best to regulate the enterprise? Yes, but not piously. 

At our Thanksgiving table, it feels like Sukkot, except it is inside the house. I am personally especially thankful for family and other personal relationships, our synagogue members and lay leaders, certain philanthropists (there is some overlap there), and to be living in a liberal, regulated free-market democracy. I have my parents and grandparents to thank for coming here. I thank a history of tenacious, brave and brilliant people, who have shaped a humbling, clumsy and awesome history of political and moral growth in the United States. When I think about the latter, I do feel pious. I feel pious because I think that while God’s power in nature is minimal in actually getting our food on the table, God’s power in inspiring conscience and courage is weighty. 

I feel pious and thankful when I am around the military. I wish I could write about the courage and devotion to mission, i.e. Iraqi freedom, that I knew when I got to know Marines who served in Iraq and went on to extend their enlistments to go back (among them one of my sons along with many other Marines in 1st Battalion, 4th Marines). I won’t write about it, because the wounds here are bitter and one cannot write about our tenacious, devoted and stalwart military without inviting a resurgence of the polemical battles. (Safer to fight polemical battles.) 

Allow me, however, to share a pious moment of Thanksgiving around the Israeli military. My daughter, who is serving now in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has a friend aptly named Oz (“courage” or “strength”), who is serving in an elite special force. My wife and daughters and I attended the final leg of their training before they were officially inducted into the unit. They had to make a 100-kilometer, all-night march, and at the last two kilometers, in the early morning, their families could join them in the march. That was ecstatic and symbolic. Dads and moms, sisters and brothers, girlfriends and girls who were just friends, all pulling their exhausted gear-laden soldiers up the last incline. The soldiers could have made it anyway, but it was definitely symbolic.

We all ended up in a secluded little valley, a dale, where the swearing-in took place. A young major spoke of his time in training and in war, and of those who served in the unit before him, who had passed the tradition of courage and sacrifice on to him. And of how he had trained the captains, who had trained the lieutenants, who had trained the sergeants, who trained the troops. Each squad was identified by the name of the sergeant, and each platoon by the name of the lieutenant. As the major spoke and named his staff, the troops cheered. The families watching cheered — secular and Orthodox, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Ethiopians and Russians, and not a few Americans. 

Dotted around the dale were small monuments of men (boys) who had been killed in action.

The young major spoke of service, and tradition, and brotherhood, and love of nation, and Zionism, and courage, and sacrifice and memory and future in a manner so matter of fact that it was ethereal. He spoke of ethereal facts. I began to cry and tried to stop until I noticed everyone else crying. The civilians. The soldiers’ faces were hard, grim and radiant. 

Time stood still while they took the oath. 

In the back of mind, I knew that the day-to-day survival of the State of Israel depends on soldiers like these — the hammers, the metal on the shield. In the front of my mind, against my theological convictions, I was praying for their safety. Hard and dangerous years ahead. And I prayed for their families. Years of pride, and fear and maybe worse were ahead for them. 

And I was filled with gratitude for these soldiers, and all those serving in the IDF, these few and proud Israeli men and women, and for their service.