Message for Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 2012

Once, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Zusya heard a cantor in the House of Prayer, chanting the words: “And it is forgiven,” in strange and beautiful tones. Then he called to God, “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how would such a song have been intoned before you?” (paraphrased from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)

While we might marvel at Rabbi Zusya’s chutzpah, his audacity, his remark touches an interesting issue. Imagine God looking down at humanity and seeing all the warfare, all the environmental damage, all the cruelty, all the people struggling in desperate poverty while a handful of others are hoarding extraordinary wealth, all the hatred fueled by the very religious doctrines that God gave us in love, all the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, all the ways people shield themselves from the suffering of others. And still, God continues to bathe humanity with blessings: the sun rising every day, the cycles of living things providing abundant nourishment and indescribable beauty, sufficient material resources to meet the needs of every being on the planet, the intellect to solve insurmountable problems, the presence of family and community, the emotional capacities to love them and care for them, the power to express our love in the creation of new life. Why doesn’t God burn out? What sustains God to keep giving so much to a species that has so misused God’s gifts and is likely to continue to do so?

Zusya’s answer is truly ingenious. The more broken people have made God’s world, the more beautiful and passionate will be our song of repentance. Our tender music sings out in stark contrast to the shrill screeches of human misery and neglect; the sinewy lament flowing arrhythmically from our hearts offers a welcome interlude from the lockstep heavy metallic thud, thud, thud beating of what we call progress. The music of our prayers is beautiful in and of itself. But beyond that, our prayers proclaim that kindness, reflection, and hope cannot be muffled by the noise of human folly. For this, God can be deeply grateful.

OK, I know that this is not what we like to hear about at Thanksgiving, broken world and all that. Shouldn’t we instead focus on how incredibly blessed most of us are in this society? Most of us enjoy adequate food, clothing, and shelter, a decent standard of living, personal freedom, and access to resources and access to resources and opportunities. We can, and we should, acknowledge how fortunate we are and give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. In Jewish tradition we don’t limit this kind of thanksgiving to a single Thursday in November; rather we are told to include the following blessing in our prayers at least three times a day:

We thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night.

If we truly lived with these words implanted in our consciousness, we would live enchanted lives. No matter what happens, we would never forget that the glass is not half empty; it is, in fact, at least 90 percent full.

The trouble is, we don’t seem to be wired to experience this level of fulfillment. We ignore at least 40 percent of the nectar in our glass, and then bemoan that it is still half empty. In the eleventh century, a rabbi named Bachya ibn Pakuda taught that there are three causes for our lack of gratitude. First of all, once we get attached to material possessions; we keep wanting more. If we enjoy our Ipad 2, we now want an Ipad 4, and no matter how happy we’ve been with our Ipad 4, we just can’t live without a Mini. The second problem is that we take all the good stuff we’ve got for granted. Even our new Mini soon becomes just another tool, while our old Ipad 4 sits idle on a shelf alongside the laptop, smartphone, and CD player that we’ve owned since the Pleistocene era. The third problem, according to Bachya, is the one that concerns me the most tonight. This is that we tend to focus on our disappointments, failures, and hurts, and then lose sight of our blessings altogether. Who cares about a little Mini when the rich kid down the street got a sports car for her seventeenth birthday? And what’s the use of having a new car if you knock your back out working out at the club so you are immobilized for the next two weeks?

To be sure, physical pain is something we all would rather be free from. Getting turned down for a job opening or a date does nothing to lift one’s spirits. And even though we may read the newspaper as a leisure activity, the headlines usually don’t do much to brighten our day. But, as the sages of all religious traditions teach us, we have a choice how to react to these events. So let’s say, for example, my insurance premium has doubled, a lab test came out positive, or that stench comes from a raccoon’s nest in the basement. Our rabbis taught that we react positively or negatively to events like these because we assume that they will lead to either good or bad outcomes. But none of us are clairvoyant. We actually have no idea how things will turn out.

Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, tells the true story of a man condemned to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Unlike countless others, he survived this ordeal and fled to Uruguay. Decades later, he escaped from the political instability and guerilla warfare in Uruguay and emigrated to the United States with a comfortable fortune. It turned out that in the concentration camp he was forced to make soap; eventually this experience enabled him to become the largest soap manufacturer in Uruguay. These twists of fate demonstrate how the consequences of the events in our lives cannot be predicted. Therefore the Talmud tells us to say a blessing if something good happens, and to say a blessing if something bad happens, because we don’t really know which is which.

To be sure, life sometimes throws situations our way that are truly catastrophic and lead to extreme suffering. Yesterday I met a woman who has survived multiple illnesses deemed to be imminently terminal, and in addition she lost her husband to suicide a year and a half ago. She told me how important it would be for me to mention extreme situations such as hers in this talk, to let people know how her difficulties have compelled her to live every day as if it were her last, to speak authentically and passionately, even if it defied social mores and expectations, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to cry, even if this made people uncomfortable. From tragedy and painful confrontation with death emerged a passion for life, a sense of gratitude for each day, and at the same time a sensitivity that her words and deeds, no matter how freely expressed, must never cross the line of causing physical or emotional hurt to others.

But beyond our personal tragedies is the realization that we live in a broken world crying out for repair. The kabbalistic master Yitzchak Luria taught that God initially created a world so perfect that everything was enveloped in radiant divine light. But this light got so bright and intense that the earthly vessels created to hold the light could no longer contain it. All the vessels got shattered. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the elements of a whole and perfect world lie in shambles. It is up to us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our human task is to assist God in the work of creation by reassembling all the broken pieces. How do we do this? By feeding the hungry; by struggling for justice; by restoring the damage we’ve wrought on the environment; by ending war and violent hatred once and for all. This is the work of repairing the world, of tikkun olam. As we gather here tonight to pray together, we are repairing the world. When Muslims, Jews, and Christians come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are repairing the world. When we do not allow the bitter struggles that divide our peoples to stand between us, we are repairing the world. And when, ultimately, we sit down together at the conference table to resolve our differences, sensitive to each other’s point of view and compassionate to each other’s suffering, our world will be about as close to being fully repaired as it has ever been.

Tonight, more than anything else, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to engage with all of you in this work of repair. I thank God for bringing me to a community where I can interact with, learn from, and befriend my Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai counterparts. Through the efforts of good people in this community and in countless other communities around the world, may warfare and genocide vanish from our midst and may the seeds of compassion and forgiveness germinate in fields long infested with the bramble of fear, prejudice, and hatred.

Before I spoke this evening, Father Mark recited one of my favorite Psalms. It is the lament of a man engulfed in brokenness, a man who has fallen into a pit of despair. In Psalm 30 this man recognizes that it is easy to be grateful when one is on a roll:

Va’ani amarti v’shalvi kol-emot l’olam.
And as for me, in the ease of my prosperity I said that I would never be shaken.

But to sustain as a healthy attitude in tough times requires a broader perspective:

Ba’erev yalin bechi v’laboker rinah.
In the evening weeping may set in and abide for the night, yet in the morning there are shouts of joy!

What’s the secret of going from weeping to joy? It’s in the verse

Hafachta mispadi l’machol li pitachta saki va’t’azreni simchah.

The King James Version translates this as:

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness…

If we look carefully at the original Hebrew, we find that the secret of turning mourning into dancing is likened to the miracle of giving birth:

You transmuted my wailing into its opposite, into the exquisitely writhing ecstatic pain of the pangs of birth;
You opened my sack and filled my girth with joy.

Our work together of repairing the world is like giving birth to new life. The process may be difficult and sometimes painful. We may not bear the child we had hoped for; sometimes the baby may not survive to breathe its first breath. And still, whatever the outcome, our efforts to create a better world bring purpose to our lives. We know why we were created, and how we are connected to humanity as a whole. For all this, we cannot help but be filled with gratitude. This is why our Psalm concludes:

L’ma’an y’zamercha chavod v’lo yidom adonai elohai l’olam odecha.
You blessed me with the joy of new life so that glory might sing out to You and never be silent.
Adonai, my God, I shall give thanks to you forever.

East Lansing, Michigan
November 19, 2012