On Thanksgiving, Torah and Being a Blessing

Palestinian cistern in Dir Jarir frequently raided by settlers and their flocks.

I don’t do many posts on social media connected to my family, because they generally don’t want their pictures to appear or details about their lives to be mentioned.  However, in the midst of a speaking/fundraising tour for Torat Tzedek (the Israeli human rights NGO that I direct), I had the opportunity to celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving with two of my brothers and some of their children.  It was the first time that the three of us were together for Thanksgiving  since our parents died, and we were together with another sister the next day.  This is something that I have tried to make happen almost every year, without success, and I was able to mark the occasion with a Facebook post. Although my life is dedicated to fighting injustice, and under the new government matters are poised to go from bad to worse on many fronts, I also know that I have much to be thankful for.

I received a comment (in Hebrew) “What about the poor Indians that you conquered their lands and now you slaughter turkeys to celebrate the occupation.”  I am a vegetarian, so I didn’t slaughter any turkeys. However, it is true that may Native Americans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and once I participated in an “un-Thanksgiving” on Alcatraz Island with Native Americans telling their story.

The comment led me to think about how little I really know about the Pilgrim and their ideology. A quick search seems to indicate that on the one hand, they saw the Native Americans as heathens who needed to be “civilized” and brought to Christianity. They carried diseases they were relatively immune to but were deadly to the Native Americans. Nevertheless, they did genuinely hope to live in peace together. The peace treaty they signed lasted for fifty years. History might have been different had other colonists shared the beliefs of the pilgrims.

I don’t think that I know the full story from a brief search, and others see an even darker narrative.  I do wonder whether, in addition to the message of thanksgiving to a Higher Power, the theme of solidarity spanning identities, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and all else that divides us could make Thanksgiving into a day of rededication to these ideals, and to fighting injustice in all its forms.

Obviously, we can ask the same questions about the by no means uniform intents of the early Zionist idealogues and pioneers, and about the message of the Torah towards non-Jews.  I will leave the early Zionists for another time, and we each choose what we carry away from the Torah.

On Shabbat Khayei Sarah huge numbers descended on Hebron. Some of them acted violently and aggressively, as security forces primarily focused on restraining Palestinians.  For the celebrants, Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah in order to bury Sarah supplements God’s Promise that his descendants will inherit the Land. The purchase of the one small plot is seen symbolically as the purchase of the entire Land of Israel.  Others of us note that, despite God’s Promise, Abraham sees himself as a resident alien seeking to live peacefully with the other residents, and insists on purchasing the burial site. We each choose what we carry away from the Torah.

Week after week, God repeats what can be seen as a colonialist promise Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their progeny have been given the Land.  However, both last week in Toldot, and this week in “Vayetze,” The very next sentence is that the descendants will be a blessing for all the nations of the earth.  Just as the promise that the descendants of our matriarchs and patriarchs will inherit the Land is repeated to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so is the promise that we will be a blessing to all humanity.

This week God says to Jacob, “ I will give the land that you are lying upon to you and your offspring. Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. And all the families of the land will be blessed through you and your offspring.”(Genesis 28:13-14).

God made almost the same promise to Isaac last week, but with an important addition, ” I will multiply your offspring like the stars of the heavens and I will give your offspring all these lands. All the nations of the earth will be blessed through your offspring, because Avraham has listened to my voice and has kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My teachings” (Genesis 26:4-5).

One traditional understanding of the idea that the nations of the earth will be blessed through us is that others will look at us and say “We want to be like them.”  For example, Rashi writes “A man will say to his son, ‘May your seed be as the seed of Isaac’. “ (Commentary to Genesis 26: 5). Were we to serve as a positive role model for humanity, that would certainly be a good thing.

The plain meaning of these texts actually goes even further. Not only are we an example, but our very existence will bring blessing and good things to all the world. Would that we fulfill our intended purpose.

The addition in last week’s text makes clear that we are a blessing and receive blessing because Abraham listened to God and observed God’s Commandments and Teachings: Soforno comments, “he also did the very things which I Myself am in the habit of doing, such as to perform deeds of loving kindness. (compare Psalms 25,10 כל ארחות ה’ חסד ואמת, “all the paths of the Lord are love and truth, etc.”) Also, Avraham warned the potential sinners to improve their ways, something that is of utmost importance to Me. This is what he did every time the Torah records him as קרא בשם ה’, “he proclaimed the name of the Lord.” He also observed My revealed commandments מצותי, חוקותי, ותורותי, “the seven laws I laid down for all of mankind.” As a result of all this, he did not only preach to his fellow human beings, but he practiced what he preached.”

The implication is that the condition for Isaac and we, his descendants both to receive the promised blessings and to be a blessing for others, is to act as Abraham did. We must act out of lovingkindness to all, we must lovingly inspire those doing wrong to change their ways, and we must practice what we preach.

A bit further in Toldot, we read of the conflicts with the Philistines over water sources that started with Abraham, and continue until this day. In the Torah portion, it is the Philistines that stop up Isaac’s wells and cisterns. However, today we have become the stoppers of wells. Settlers and the Israeli government stop up or destroy Palestinian water cisterns, deny access to others, steal water from some, and confiscate water tanks We are not acting out of lovingkindess, and we are not a blessing.

Similar to the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, the Philistines do eventually come to Isaac, recognize that God is with Isaac, and ask to make a covenant with him. What did Israel do when the Saudis came to us with a peace proposal?  Can we imagine the incoming government making a peace proposal that Palestinians and the Arab world could possibly serioiusly consider? Would it be willing to respond to even an offer that they consider unacceptable, “We disagree with several points, but let’s talk about it”?

We have a choice. We can learn from the Torah that we have a mandate to cheat and steal in order to take what is ours, just as Jacob convinced Esau to sell his birthright, and then conspired with Rebecca to steal Esau’s blessing. We can act with loving kindness and in ways that make our presence in the Land and in the world a source of blessing for all. We can make peace even with those who in the past have stopped up our wells. We can work for the day when all can truly participate in days of thanksgiving. In so doing, we can bring also bring upon ourselves God’s blessings.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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