Actively Giving Thanks

The opening theme of this week’s Parasha is thankfulness, appropriate of course for Thanksgiving weekend. First, although Jacob doesn’t say it expressly, when he speaks of all that he has brought with him, material as well as familial,  it is with profound gratitude. 

קטונתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך

כי עברתי את הירדן והייתי שתי מחנות

הצילני נא

Still, while acknowledging all the good that has been granted to him, he fears that his brother has not forgiven him for long-ago events. Jacob splits his family and possessions into two camps, not knowing what his brother’s intentions were.  This way, if Esav attacked one camp, the other could escape. As I sat in shul in Tel Aviv last Shabbat, reading ahead, I was struck by how relevant the events of the first aliya were to what I’d just experienced.  So let’s do a little analysis, sort of a personal midrash.

The song I sang earlier is from Jacob’s supplication to G-D.  It consists of several parts.  First, Jacob is thankful, and feels humbled and says he is unworthy of the grace that G-D has shown him to date.  Katonti – literally, I am small, is the perfect analogy for Israel, both as Jacob’s new name given after his wrestling match with the angel, and the people of Israel, but it also means unworthy.  That remains to be seen, although in the case of Jacob he has proven himself time and again as loyal to his heritage.  In the case of the modern State of Israel, we prove ourselves worthy every day – in humanitarian aid given worldwide, medical and technical advances that we share with the world, literature, art, you name it, we’re in it.  But like Jacob, we fear the intentions of our brothers, the Arabs.

Perhaps Jacob’s faith was being tested much as Abraham’s had been.  Katonti – I am small – can also refer to the promise that his tribe would one day rule the country and be a great nation, but that would only happen if Esau let his family live.  I don’t see Jacob’s wrestling with the angel as much different from the binding of Isaac, both a test of moral and physical strength.  Katonti – I am small – can I live up to the expectations of my great forefather?

The second part, about being divided into two camps, offers us many more examples of the truth and relevance of the Torah.  We can look at the two camps in several ways.  Religious and secular. Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Black and White. Old and Young. Refugees and natives. Rich and poor. Hawks and Doves. Supporters of Israel vs. BDS. כולנו יהודים, we are all Jews.  Jacob was trying to save his family from his brother’s wrath.  Isn’t Israel trying to do the same thing?  When the south was being attacked, people in the north and center of the country opened their homes and hotels offered a free weekend as a way of helping their brothers in the south endure the constant barrage of missiles, give them a time-out from sleeping in bomb shelters.  That’s the Jewish way.  Kulanu Yehudim, we are all Jews, and Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another.

In the third part, Jacob cries הצילני נא, save me.  Well, I was in Israel for 3 ½ weeks, and that seemed like a daily prayer.  The constant bombings in the South of course, and Israel’s carefully measured response, despite Hamas’s declaration that the next round would hit Tel Aviv.  The near-dissolution of the government after Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Defense, resigned because others in the government disagreed with his more hawkish approach. Yes, we needed saving.  Still, the government stayed functioning and virtually intact.

But as much as we pray and plead הצילני נא (save us), we are also taught that G-D helps those who help themselves.  It is telling that in the Torah itself we are told to strike preemptively, הקם להרגך .השכם להרגו  And in the Mishna we are told that a man has 3 things he is obligated to teach his children: Torah, a trade, and how to swim.  Yes, that comes in handy when our enemies threaten to throw us into the sea!

By dividing his family and wealth in two, Jacob was hoping to save at least part of what he had rather than lose it all.  So close to the anniversary of the UN Partition Plan in November of 1947, this too rings true.  The Jews accepted a part of the land of Israel rather than insist on having it all, a compromise not unlike Jacob’s decision.  But I have always wondered how Jacob made that choice?  Might there not have been another option that united, rather than divided?  Wasn’t there already enough division and competition in his large family?  How could he play favorites?  How do you decide which half is more precious?

Back to being divided into two camps, I am constantly amazed at how many competing organizations we have doing the same or similar work. If you have liked one on Facebook, chances are you now get posts from several.  United with Israel? Stand with Israel.  FIDF?  You now get Pizza for the IDF, Sufganiot for the IDF, Hamentaschen for the IDF…Yashar Lachayal?  Lone Soldiers’ Center and so on.  We are bombarded from the left and right, “If you love Israel, give to…”  At least I know that when I speak about supporting Israel at EBJC I’m preaching to the choir.  So I have a challenge for all of you.

Whether you are going to Israel on a mission, such as JNF or Federation or with a synagogue trip, add an extra few days to your mission and volunteer on an army base. It’s an option for Birthright and teen tours as well. One week of a volunteer stint is really only 4 1/2 days, Sunday till Thursday.  You will get a taste of Israeli Army life (and food) and help Israel at the same time. As I like to put it, put your body where your money already goes.  4 ½  days that can change your life and your attitude.  Meet soldiers where they live and work.  Make a meaningful contribution to Israel’s economy.  I’m not saying don’t shop blue and white, I’m not saying to stop supporting your favorite organizations, I’m saying there’s more to supporting Israel than money.  The soldiers appreciate the contribution of your physical presence as well as the political and emotional support we provide.  Sometimes they think we’re crazy for leaving our cushy lives in the diaspora, but ultimately that’s what true Zionism is all about.

One of the things to be thankful for is that this has been a record year for tourism to Israel despite the conflicts.  The hotels are packed. But one of the disappointing facts I learned during my recent IDF service was that American tourism has fallen off.  American volunteerism in Sar-El has dropped as well.  Do you know from which countries most of the volunteers come?  France is first, second is North America , then the Eastern European bloc, countries such as Hungary.  I served with Australians, Brits, Canadians,  Italians, French, Hungarians, South Americans and more.  Some even live in Israel and volunteer periodically.  So many of you have told me “Some day I will volunteer too.”  Some day is today, it is now, this year.  Accept the challenge to go outside your comfort zone and do more than pay lip service.  Do it now, while you are still in good health.  Be like the sisters from Canada, aged 94 and 88, who come every year and work hard, side-by-side with 40-somethings. 

Thinking winter isn’t a good time?  Less than a week ago we were swimming in the Mediterranean, for which I am grateful as well!  And my personal reasons for being thankful?  My family of course – you see my youngest grandson here today.  My friends.  My health.  The ability to travel.  The ability to work and workout.  To belong to a vibrant community such as this as well as klal Yisrael. Jacob would have been proud of us!

Put your body where your money already goes!

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