A pupil once asked the Maggid of Mezritch: “How can we praise God for the bad days in our lives?”
“A difficult question,” the teacher replied. “Go to Anapoli and see Reb Zusha who has suffered much. He will tell you.”
So the pupil went to Anapoli and found Reb Zusha living with his wife in one small room. Their clothing was shabby, their furniture broken and their only food was stale bread and milk. “My rebbe sent me here,” the student began, “because he said you could explain the meaning of our rabbis’ teaching that we must thank God for the bad days as well as for the good.”
Reb Zusha seemed surprised. “I can’t understand why your teacher sent you to me. I have never had a bad day. I am grateful for every day no matter what it brings. To me every day is a day to give thanks and praise to God.”
We take Reb Zusha’s lesson to heart this holiday week, thanking God for the blessings of home and family, friendship and community.
And we thank God for our country, America: troubled, yes; divided, certainly. The extent of the divisiveness leading up to Election Day and in its aftermath has been painful to bear. The rancor of the campaign has damaged our nation, degraded our discourse, and given license to fear-mongering, xenophobia and meanness. College campuses and local communities report an uptick in incidents of bigotry and intimidation, including swastikas painted on dormitory doors and in playgrounds. Americans are afraid, including many Hispanics and Muslims, because of campaign commitments made by the President-elect. And others have grown uneasy, including many gays and Jews, because of the hateful rhetoric of fringe groups now gone mainstream.
To reassure all Americans of their safety, Trump must denounce promptly and forcefully every expression of hate and misogyny by his supporters, and make certain his appointments don’t exacerbate those fears as Steve Bannon’s has. And if he fails, we must let him know it, fighting hard to protect the vulnerable among us. Simultaneously, we must hear in the election’s outcome those voices of discontent with the direction America has taken to better grasp their concerns, including the economic challenges particular to exurban and rural America we in New York might not fully appreciate.
The widening gap between rich and poor was one of many conditions pre-existing election season. Guns continue to kill 33,000 Americans a year. A chasm divides blacks and whites in housing, health care, education, jobs and policing. Ongoing efforts to marry religious fundamentalism to political power encourage the legislation of sectarian doctrine on matters as private as women’s reproductive health, gender identification, and the rights of the dying. These crises are not going to evaporate overnight.
But despite them all, we are grateful to live in America. While we may argue vehemently over our political differences, we do have the freedom to express them, and the power to advocate for social policies that reflect our beliefs. While we fear the rise of nativism in the United States and other Western democracies, our government was designed specifically to safeguard the rights of religious, racial, ethnic and other minorities.
The notion of minority rights was made explicit in the summer of 1790 when the newly-elected President George Washington visited Rhode Island. Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, had authored a letter of welcome to Washington in which he celebrated the promise of “a government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously afford[s] to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship – deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal….”
To this vision, Washington responded with his historic affirmation: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance….”
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The vision is unrealized for too many Americans struggling in the grips of poverty, institutionalized racism and gender discrimination. But it remains our national hope. E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One,” still distinguishes our national seal. We still believe in mutual accountability, collective responsibility, and the strength inherent in diversity.
The election threw into sharper relief the fissures we knew divided our country, out of which emerged expressions of bigotry, fear, and distrust in the integrity of our nation’s leaders. Now as we turn from the election to the binding of the wounds it leaves behind, I believe houses of worship must help span the divides that separate the diverse communities that make up America, yet remain so distant from one another. We must continue to build bridges through interfaith and inter-communal dialogue, both to reassure those with whom we agree, and to better understand the needs and concerns of those with whom we don’t agree, in the hope that they come to appreciate our needs and concerns too. And always we must remain sanctuaries for those seeking comfort, moral touchstones challenging society to act upon its best vision for itself. Ours is the mission: to lift up a vision of unity in a nation divided; to kindle a spark of hope in a dark and troubled world.
Washington closed his response to Moses Seixas with this benediction: “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
May this season of Thanksgiving be one of happiness for us all. May we be thankful for the blessings of our lives, and for America – troubled, divided America – wherein each of us has a role to play in building a brighter tomorrow.
Rabbi Joshua Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan.