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Thanksgiving: All Day, Every Day

Last Shabbat, during our Kiddush club discussion, I asked the question "What about Judaism resembles Thanksgiving?." As expected there were many answers comparing Thanksgiving to various holidays like Chanukah, Pesach, Sukkot, as well as traditions like reciting Hallel (psalms of praise). As we explored it further we realized that there is even more. Shabbat in terms of family time, cooking prep and reflecting on life's blessings. Exploring it further, we discovered how prayer and blessings over food is an element of Thanksgiving. Continuing to think about it, Thanksgiving for a Jew is from the moment of waking up in the morning, when we say Modeh Ani (thanking G-d for life), continues throughout the day all the way to the last moment before we go to sleep, when we end our day blessing G-d for sleep and refreshing restfulness.

It then hit me, that in typical American style, we have relegated what ought to be a 24/7/365 state of consciousness, to one day a year we call Thanksgiving. (We have done the same with Mother's Day and Yom Kippur. The only one-day-a-year holiday that seems to have seeped into the rest of the year is SuperBowl Sunday.) As Jews we must know that gratitude and acknowledging all that G-d does for us permeates our lives and our days. We need to take the time to recognize how much or traditon revolves around this idea. As we pop food into our mouths do we mumble the blessing (if even) or do we stop to be conscious of why we must thank G-d. When good things happen to us do we take them for granted or do we thank the Source of all Blessing? Do we only pray when things are rough or do we remember to "report back" when things are looking up?

Judaism is Thanksgiving all day every day! (Minus the food... or, on second thought, maybe not.)

GA Reflections & Thoughts on the Disturbances

This week I had the pleasure of participating in the GA. Kudos to our local federation for doing a great job with the hosting logistics and to the volunteers from our great Jewish community for making everyone feel welcome. Aside from the fact that I had to miss Chabad's annual conference in NY, it was a great experience. I met and chatted with visiting delegates and spent some good time with our own New Orleans folks. I participated in informative sessions, including one entitled "Federation is from Mars, Chabad is from Venus." The general plenaries were quite rewarding; having the chance to hear from American and Israeli political leaders. I was saddened by the misguided young Jews who interrupted the Prime Minister's talk. I was gladdened by the annoucement by Natan Sharansky that the Jewish Agency has undertaken to help promote Jewish identity in the Diaspora. He cited Netanyahu's poignant statement that "all Jews are his base." I believe this is a very important attitude shift on the part of Israel. If we view the Jewish people as a unit then we must be strong wherever we are.

If one thubmed through the schedule of the GA, two issues would jump out as being of primary focus (aside from fundraising), supporting and defending Israel, and engaging young people to participate in the Jewish community. Yet, on display before 4,000 people was the stark realization that these two goals can sometimes be contradictory. While many (perhaps most) of our young people are supporters of Israel (to whatever degree), some are walking away from a state that they see as a contradiction to the Jewish values that they were taught. As misguided as we consider them (and I do), it is still an issue that we must confront.

I do not intend to over-simplify a complex issue, but I would like to share an element of a possible solution. Admittedly this stems from Torah convictions, but I proudly declare that Torah is the prism through which I view life. 

The average Jewish youths from liberal (i.e. secular) Western homes are given three dimensions to their Jewish identities. Social action, Holocaust rememberance, Israel. (See previous blogs on these issues - www.chabadneworleans.com/blog.)

Social action, while an important part of being Jewish, is not exclusively Jewish. All people should care for the needy, the planet, animals etc. The Holocaust, which is very central, gives us a sense of peoplehood, but in terms of who and what we need to resist and fight against (anti-semitism etc.). So the one positive element of identity (something they can be for rather than against) is Israel. How a group of ragtag people made the desert bloom. How it is the only democracy in the region. How so many scientific, technological, and medical developments came out of Israel. How it gives a place for all Jews to live in security. How it cares for forgotten Jews from all over the world, Yemen, Ethiopia, Soviet Union etc. The great beaches, universities, music, culture, art. Tel Aviv is the third best city in the world for a Hedonistic experience.

What we are under-emphasizing (or in some cases avoiding altogether) are the religious associations. That it is a gift from G-d to the Jewish people. The holiness of Israel. The very place in which the narratives of the Bible occur. The special Mitzvot connected to the land. The closeness to G-d that one can feel there. And most importantly, seeing it in the context of the entire Torah, Mitzvot and Jewish religion.

When we do not provide spiritual substance as our Jewish identity education, we face the possibilty of a young person saying, "Wait a minute! It doesn't all align in my eyes. One value seems to contradict the other." While we can argue the issue with them until we are blue in the face, we may not be successful in convincing them.

On the other hand when a Jewish identity is the Torah, Mitzvot, spirituality and G-dliness, then social action is a part of that, Holocaust remeberance is in that context, and Israel is a central aspect as well. But then we do not face the same risk, for it is all part of a greater understanding of life and Judaism, which is unshakable. Space constraints do not allow for further elaboration, but this is enough to get people thinking.

Generational Pride

This weeks Torah portion opens with a curious redundancy, "These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham bore Isaac." If Isaac is Abraham's son then of course Abraham begot him. One of the explanations is that both Abraham and Isaac took pride in their association with each other. Abraham was proud to be known as Isaac's father, and Isaac was proud to be known as Abraham's son.

I believe that therein lies a very powerful message. The importance of being proud of where we came from - our heritage and history. And also ensuring that our conduct is such that our ancestors would be proud of us. Two stories to illustrate the point.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski related that many years ago he was riding a bus when a woman came up to him and began berating him Yiddish for clinging to his old-fashioned ways and dress and how embarrassing it is for the Jewish people. He looked at her blankly and said "I'm sorry ma'am, but I don't understand what you saying. I am Amish." Upon hearing this she apologized profusely and declared "Oh you're Amish. I admire you people so much for retaining the ways of your heritage." At this point, the Rabbi says. "Lady why is it that you are ashamed of a Jew who proudly retains his way, but you admire the Amish for the same conduct?

In 1948, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, Zalman Shazar was appointed Minister of Education. At the time there was a push to force the religious schools in Israel to conform to certain standards that were offensive to them. Knowing that Shazar came from Chabad ancestry (his original name was Shneur Zalman Rubashov - hence the acronym Shazar), the religious leadership in Israel turned to the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York to influence the Minister in the matter. The Rebbe sent Shazar the following succinct message, "Make sure that the Rubashov family of Russia (his ancestors) will not be put to shame by the Rubashov family in Israel." The message hit its mark and the policy changed. Subsequently Shazar became very close to Chabad. (For more on this see www.chabadneworleans.com/1115565.

It is a two way street. If we are proud of from where we come, then we will act in a way that makes them proud of us.

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