TEL AVIV - I have a need to say grace this Thanksgiving night, but I'm not ready.
There are American Jews - especially those, like me, who grew up as the youngest in their family, and thus were forced, year after year, to recite the Four Questions at Passover - who may look at Thanksgiving as a Seder without the embarrassment.
Now that I am grown, though, and living thousands of miles from that home, I find myself asking questions about Thanksgiving. And about how and why one says grace.
This morning my wife asked the most important one. It is a question which, in the act of asking, says grace:
"What would this land look like, if we were really thankful for what we have?"
We were on the highway to Tel Aviv, where she works as a nurse for Africans who fled their homes in grave peril and found shelter, for the moment at least, in Israel.
It is not difficult, in that clinic, to understand the story of the first Thanksgiving. There are people seeking refuge in a strange land. Some of the inhabitants, who do not know nor easily understand the refugees, elect to help them survive.
It is in a place like this, that what appears to be a simple question, can shed a world of light.
The answer, I suspect, is that if we were truly thankful for what we have, then what we would have here, is peace.
But I'm not ready to accept that, just yet.
You can feel it drain out of you in this place, your ability to feel blessed, to feel grateful. It is one of the ways that the land devours its inhabitants. History has been cruel to everyone here, Jews and Arabs in particular, displacing them, oppressing them, disenfranchising them, putting them to flight, putting them to death. Compelling them to fixate on a partly imagined past and a partly impossible future. Robbing them of their ability to live in the present, to see what they do have, to give thanks.
As an experiment, walking around the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Jaffa outside the clinic, I told people the story of the first Thanksgiving. The reactions of both Arabs and Jews were strikingly similar. "So the Indians helped these white people, then the whites turned around and annihilated them?"
Both sides identified with the Native Americans, welcoming at heart, ripped off and murdered for their trouble.
It makes you wonder. What would this land look like, if they had been welcoming to us, and if we had been ? if we were - welcoming to them?
We can know, if nothing else, that we would spend much more of our resources teaching children how to make a better life for themselves and others, and much less teaching them how to clean and operate a rifle.
We can know, also, that we would spend much more of our time and trouble producing clean water, for example, and worthwhile workplaces, rather than finding ways to claim and fight over the dwindling resources we have left.
There's a reason, I believe, that Thanksgiving takes place in a season of transition, with the brief, heartbreaking natural artistry of leaves catching the colors of fire just before they dry and fall. There's a lesson, also, in the fact that in the Holy Land, the autumn is our only true spring. It is when the rain comes, and restores new life to the burned-brown vegetation, dead as winter, that summer leaves behind.
What would this place look like, if instead of craving what the others have, people truly appreciated what they themselves possess?
They might realize that compromise, rather than ferocity, is a part of God's work. And a large part of being fully human.
If we could get past the endless, the irresolvable debates over who was here first, who are the true natives, who has done more injustice to the other, perhaps we could better value life and each other.
There are children right here with nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep - if we really appreciated what we have, wouldn't we help them?
We, all of us, waste their resources of intellect, youth, life itself, in lethal obsession over the other half of this place, allowing the conflict to keep help from reaching the needy in their midst.
Why, in the end, is this Thanksgiving night different from all other nights?
Because, before we eat, even before we say grace, we stop to think. We stop in order to notice what God's work really is. To appreciate the ways in which it gives us life, sustains us, and has brought us to this night.
We stop to be reminded that these gifts of sustenance are to enable God's work. And to be reminded that everyone in this world is, in fact, God's work.
Tonight, together, we bless the glory in the miracle of the most ordinary. It took countless impossible coincidences of heritage and survival and geography, and faith amid blackness, and people doing God's work for its own sake, to allow us to come together this night, and to give us the power and the wisdom and the gratitude, despite everything, to be able to listen for the stirrings of peace in the word ...
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