Giving Thanks at Times of Darkness
Sermon by Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
November 24, 2023
So how are you?
Don’t answer—I know. We are tired. We are exhausted—and rightfully so. For the past seven weeks we’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster, swaying from disbelief to horror, from grief to rage, from despair to hope—and right back again. We haven’t had a decent night’s sleep all this time, hoping to rise in the morning if not exactly refreshed then at least strong enough to carry on with the day’s challenges and obligations.
We’re exhausted not only because of our attempts to follow—and understand—the news from Israel, but also because of the strange and fearful wake the war leaves in our own lives. The uncertainty, the fear for loved ones and friends, the horrors we’ve been trying to push out of our minds, the unimaginable rise we’re witnessing in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in our own backyards.
The humorous saying we often use to summarize Jewish history, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat!” isn’t so funny this year.
And yet, here we are, American Jews, celebrating possibly the most American holiday of all (except of course, the Fourth of July and maybe Presidents’ Day), a holiday that truly represents what America is, or hopes to be: a nation of immigrants from all corners of the world, all trying to integrate while keeping some old-world traditions alive, struggling to create a new life, a new nation, with hopes for peace, security, and acceptance. Not so easy or simple when the differences between us outweigh the common goals: Skin color, language, nation of origin, religion and other barriers that often seem insurmountable.
Still, despite the violence that sometimes erupts along these lines of demarcation, we’ve managed to stay more or less unified. Until now, it seems.
Suddenly, a clear and wide divide has erupted between us. With hardly a heads up (at least for some of us; for others, the signs have been clear for a long time), what seems like a deafening silence has caused us to reevaluate who our friends are. We are confused. We find ourselves strange bedfellows with news outlets we normally scorn; with politicians and religious leaders we prefer to keep an arm’s distance from. We wonder how quickly political allies we once thought of as our partners have turned against us. Because it isn’t only Israel that is being widely criticized and attacked; the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become so faded as to become invisible. The two hatreds have become one, a throwback to times we thought we had left behind in “the old country.”
Worst of all, we have become fearful. Fearful to look too Jewish or exhibit outward signs of our Judaism or support of Israel. Fearful for ourselves, for our children in school, on college campuses, at the workplace, and on the street.
So what can we be thankful for this Thanksgiving?
For our food, for family love, warmth and companionship, of course. But there is yet more, so much more.
As Jews, we can be thankful for our unity as a people. We may at times quarrel and argue, but we are one family. Reaching out to—and for—one another has always been our strength. When so much of the world turns against us, we turn to one another. When no one else seems to care, we care more than ever.
We can be thankful for President Biden, whose unwavering support for Israel, both militarily and diplomatically, will probably cost him some votes, but whose bold and forthright standing as a friend of our people and homeland will enshrine him in our hearts forever.
We can be thankful for the larger community around us. In the past few weeks Congregation B’nai Torah has received numerous letters, emails and phone calls from total strangers, offering encouragement, support, and friendship. We’ve been invited to co-sponsor and participate in interfaith security events. Though not many clergy of other faiths have contacted us, we did hear from the CEO of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, who will also be present at our Hanukkah celebration in a couple of weeks. We’ve heard from friends, members of Westminster City Hall, as well as from the United States Attorney’s Office in Denver and the District Attorney of Broomfield and Westminster Counties, offering their support. I am thankful for all these expressions of caring and friendship.
A few days ago I attended a presentation by the ADL and the US Secret Service, at which the two agencies shared their strategies for protection of communities and houses of faith. I was frankly amazed at the scope of the plans as well as at the close working partnership they displayed. And I am grateful for that.
Last week’s pro-Israel rally in Washington DC showed me several things: First, the number of Israel supporters—nearly 300,000! —who came out to demonstrate, sing, wave Israeli flags and show the world that—in the Hebrew words, Am Yisrael Chai—the People of Israel is yet alive and strong. A strong showing by representatives from the entire spectrum of political, social and religious groups, spoke to the ideal stated by the U.S. Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, that “Hate and violence directed at any member of our society because of who they are is un-American and wrong.”
And I was gratified to see how many young Jewish men and women were there. At a time when many Jewish American youth are ambivalent about their Jewish identity as well as their relationship to Israel, the presence of these young people demonstrated for me that theirs is NOT a lost generation. That our future is in strong hands—with God’s help. And I am grateful for this wide and diverse show of support.
Lastly at this point, and just as important as anything I’ve already said, I am gratified to have watched today—through many tears—the miracle of the release of 13 of the Israeli hostages and 11 foreign workers who taken by the Hamas terrorists 49 days ago—though I am still afraid (and yet hopeful) for the fate of the almost 200 others who are still in the clutches of those barbarian cannibals whose whole purpose in life is to kill, ravage and mutilate. I am grateful to all who negotiated this small step from despair to hope, from darkness to light; and above all, we all owe a huge debt of thanks that can never be repaid, to the scores of Israeli soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that this miracle could take place.
Israel is indeed a place where miracles happen every day—though often at no small cost to our people.
I am thankful and feel ever-so-blessed to be member of this ancient and resilient people that has somehow managed to rise from the ashes time and again; that has contributed so much to humanity and civilization and, against all odds, manages to remain a light unto the nations. I am gratified that, after nearly 2000 years, today we have an army—the most heroic, the most moral army in the world—to defend us and our inalienable human rights of existence and self-determination in our own ancient and rebuilt homeland.
This Thanksgiving, we truly have much to be thankful for. But one thing is clear: The work is far from over. During the next few months and possibly years, we will have to somehow bridge the cavernous chasms that have opened up in our own society and nation. We will have to rebuild relationships and restore trust. Above all, we must not let divisiveness tear us apart, nor let hate and fear hide the ideals for which the United States stands. Our strength is always in our unity.
In the next few weeks we will all be celebrating holy days that speak of light and peace. May the darkness of the season be dispelled by glowing lights of joy and thanksgiving. May all our hopes and prayers come true.
Adonai ‘oz l’amo yitein; Adonai y’varech et amo bashalom: May God bless us with strength; may God bless us, one and all, with peace.
© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman