The Purple Sheet
Shabbat Parshat Ki Tavo– September 23rd & 24th 2016 כ”א אלול תשע’ו
Thank You Obama
One of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism in the notion of Gratitude. The first words we say when we wake up in the morning are Modeh Ani which basically means, “Thank you God for returning to me my soul”. Thank God I am alive! We then go on to recite a whole bunch of blessings to ensure we do not take any of life’s gifts for granted. We thank God for clothes, our eyes, the ability to walk upright, even having dry land to walk upon. We all know it is too easy to take these things for granted and too often we only note their importance when we lose them. It is human nature to forget the good things in life and the only way to combat that is to regularly remind ourselves of our blessings.
Everyone agrees that it is necessary and crucial to show gratitude to those whom it is obvious to do so, such as parents for giving us life. Or to any other person who has done us favours and helped us along in life. It is quite easy to say thanks to people who have assisted us in a very meaningful way financially, emotionally or otherwise. But what if someone did you some good but it is a mixed bag; that they may have also hurt you on other occasions. Do we still have to express thanks and appreciation to such a person? What if there is a visceral dislike of the other because of the hurt they have caused, but at the same time, they have done good for us – what do we do then? How do we behave towards such a person?
The Torah addresses this concern in last week’s parsha. It does it in an implied manner in the context of discussing different nations and the permissibility of converts from those nations to marry a natural born Jew. It says that a male from the Biblical nations of Ammon or Moab can never do so as those two nations showed themselves to be extremely callous in not assisting the Israelites when they left Egypt and did not offer any assistance to these Jewish refugees at the time. On the other hands, an Egyptian convert can indeed marry into the Jewish people in the third generation, i.e. the grandchild of the convert. So while the men from Ammon and Moab are always off limits, those from Egypt can seamlessly marry a Jew without any preconditions after a few generations.
Now this is strange because when one thinks of the awful things these Biblical nations did to the Israelites, one would think the Egyptians would be on the top of the list of evil empires since they are the ones who enslaved the Jewish people so mercilessly. And yet the Torah instructs us not to regard them as bad as we would Ammon or Moab.
Hmm, why might that be so? Why are the Egyptian looked upon more favorably? The Torah tells us why. “Because you were guests in their land.” And as Rashi points out, “You should not utterly abhor the Egyptians even though they threw your baby boys into the Nile, because they were your hosts in your time of need.” (When Jacob and family joined Joseph in Egypt during the famine in Canaan and they ended up living securely there for many years before being enslaved.)
Amazing. Here you have a nation who did horrible and despicable acts of immorality – and Rashi seems to be purposely focusing on the worst things they did, even worse than enslavement – the killing of Jewish babies. And yet Egypt is not as much of a pariah nation as others because they helped the nascent Jewish people early on, well before they enslaved them.
The Torah is sensitizing us to the nuances of gratitude. Because as terrible as these Egyptians ended up being to the Israelites, it wasn’t always that way, and we can never lose sight of the good things they did for us before their abhorrent behavior.
I recall once citing this passage when I participated on the March of the Living program a number of years back. This is the program for high school students who spend a week visiting concentration camps in Poland and then go on to Israel afterwards. The Polish government makes all tours have a Polish guide accompany the bus. While we were travelling around I was curious about some of the areas we were passing and suggested to one of the staff members to let the Polish guide give us some insight as to where we were and some history of the places we were passing. The March of the Living staff member refused and I will never forget what she said. “We want these kids to have just one impression of Poland. That is was a graveyard for the Jewish people.”
I told her she was wrong. Because if you know anything about Jewish history, you will know that for five centuries between 1000 and 1500 the Jewish people were expelled from almost every European nation. Not just Spain but Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Provence, Portugal, England, Crimea etc. And where did they all go, who took them in? Most ended up in one nation and one land – Poland.
Yes, Poland did eventually become a graveyard for the Jewish people but it was not only that and we cannot lose sight of the fact that they were the only people that were kind enough to accept Jews and allow them to live there in relative peace for 500 years when no other European nation was willing to do so.
So just as we are instructed to view the Egyptian experience as a mixed bag of good and bad, so too we need to recognize that Poland was the same. Life and History is seldom so black and white as to being all good or all evil. So while on the one hand we need to fight for justice when evil is done by nations, on the other hand we need to express appreciation when those self-same nations have done good for us.
Which brings me to Obama. We all know that this president has not always had the warmest relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Additionally many of us are quite dismayed at the Iran deal and how it threatens Israel’s future. But the fact of the matter is that last week Israel received the largest aid package ever in the history of the United States. And while some leaders both in Israel and here in the United States claim that Israel could have gotten a better deal, it does not change the simple reality – it was the biggest gift one nation received from another in all of world history… and it came under President Obama’s watch. Some senators want to work on getting a better deal, let them. But for us who love and care about Israel we need to have just one reaction and feeling for this deal and that is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation.
As the Torah teaches about the Egyptians, they were anything but complete darlings to us in our history. But that does not take away from the good they did for us as well. One era does not overlap and cancel out the other. The Hebrew expression of gratitude is הכרת הטוב which literally means “Recognizing the Good”. You might not love Obama and you might not even totally love this deal but Judaism and simple decency demands “recognizing the good” that he has done for Israel. And for that there are just two simple words: Thank You.
Thank you for the promises you keep
When I am fast asleep
To be where we belong
Is all that I can ask