Mishael Zion

A Thanksgiving Lesson on Mount Herzl

I stood next to my father at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery this week and wept. His hevruta of 50 years, David Dishon, buried his grandson, Eitan z”l, who was killed in battle in Gaza City. David described how just two weeks ago he marked the 50th anniversary of his immigration to Israel, in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. Since then he and my father have been studying Torah together, writing Haggadot and curriculum. When they started they were both hippies with long hair, today they are mostly bald, but then and now, whenever they study, their faces light up and they joke joyously through their Torah.

At the funeral I learned that Eitan Dishon z”l was like that too. Continuously smiling and happy – in Torah study at yeshiva, as a counselor in the youth movement, in the army, with his family.

Eulogy after eulogy pained by the fact that his smile will no longer be with us.

David added something else in his obituary: He wanted to say thank you. Thank you for the privilege of living in this country. “If you ask me if I regret immigrating to Israel, now that I am doing this unnatural act of a grandfather burying a grandson,” he said, “the answer is no. I don’t regret it. I am full of thanks for the privilege to raise a family here.”

I don’t know if I would have had the ability to say such things at such a moment. David spoke and we cried. But I know that tonight in the United States, where both David and my father grew up, it is Thanksgiving. And my lesson this Thanksgiving, thanks to David and in memory of Eitan, is that saying thanks out of well-being and comfort is easy. Saying thank you while in difficulty and pain is a completely different challenge.

In our parsha, VaYetze, is the first thanksgiving in the Torah. Leah, suffering from a lack of love and immense pain, gives birth to her fourth child, and suddenly – out of her suffering – she says: this time I will thank God, naming her son: Yehuda – I will say thanks, Torah. Until now, every son that was born to her, she only saw what she did not have. She named her sons after her desire for Jacob’s love: See, a son (Reuben), God hears my poverty (Shimon), this time he will be with me (Levi). But with Yehuda’s birth she was grateful, and instilled in her son the gift of love, self-worth and inherent meaning.

This Yehuda will make plenty mistakes, but also many heroic deeds. What gives him this ability – to lead, make mistakes, and correct? His inherent sense of self worth. His ability to offer thanksgiving and recognize value. This is the secret of Yehudah, and of David his descendant. And some say that this is the secret of redemption, the secret of Mashiach son of David. This is also the secret of the simple prayer of the morning: Modeh Ani, I give thanks.
These days are so painful. It’s hard to offer much Thanksgiving. Those in the throes of grief and pain, I understand that this is not the time for them to say thank you. But from one grieving grandfather this week I learned to offer thanksgiving. Thanks for what there is, which is a lot. When I came back from the funeral, I hugged my sleeping daughters tighter. I gave thanks for my home, the family, and my people and country of which I am a part. Offering thanks from within the pain, within the fear.

There were times when a word of Torah whose bottom line is “offer thanks” would have sounded like kitsch. Today it feels like a much needed breath of oxygen, one which we must offer each other to face what’s next. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

About the Author
Rabbi Mishael Zion, an educator and community entrepreneur, is a founder of Kehillat Klausner, a partnership minyan in Talpiot, where he lives with his wife and four daughters. A faculty member of the Mandel Leadership Institute, Mishael was the founding director of the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture, where he currently serves as a faculty member. Mishael is the author of Esther: A New Israeli Commentary (2019) and is the co-author of Halaila Hazeh: An Israeli Haggadah (2004) and A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (2007), together with his father, Noam Zion.
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