November 21, 2008
Thanksgiving is coming and of course we are looking forward to food, family and football. Of course Thanksgiving is both a quasi-religious holiday and a national holiday and so the following poem speaks to the moment:
Ode to Thanksgiving
To our national birds
The American Eagle
The Thanksgiving Turkey
May one give us peace in all our states
And the other a piece for all our plates
Hopefully, as we all sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners we will pause for a moment to appreciate our many blessings. There is indeed much for which we can be thankful. While this holiday has a religious message, it is also a patriotic holiday hearkening back to the origins of our country. With all of its defects, we are blessed to be living in the United States of America and should be thankful for that reality.
As a country we have recently completed a rite of passage- the presidential election. Regardless of whom one supported we can all agree that the election of Barack Obama is a landmark in American history. 200 years after Lincoln the first African American is elected President of the United States. There is excitement throughout the land, especially in the African-American community. As Jews we can certainly identify, “for we were once slaves in Egypt.” His election is a positive omen for all minorities in this country, which is becoming more and more pluralistic.
Like many of you, I am concerned for President-elect Obama’s health and well-being. There are all too many haters in our society, including those living not far from our Bat Mitzvah girl on the North Shore and those who would burn hated symbols in lawns down the street from us. Blacks are their primary target, but Jews are in their cross-hairs as well. Let us all pray for his safety.
The new President will need the support and counsel of all Americans to face the challenges ahead. With this sermon and letter to Barack Obama, I’ll add my two cents, from a Jewish perspective of course:
Dear Mr. President-elect,
When George Washington became our first President, the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island wrote him a letter of congratulations. In his response he picked up on a phrase from the letter sent to him when he wrote: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” We the spiritual descendants of that community give thanks that Washington’s expression is our contemporary reality as you become our 44th President.
Every new administration faces challenges, but we recognize that the issues you must immediately confront are daunting. May God give you insight and wisdom as you lead us.
Our economy seems to be the most pressing concern both domestic and international, and I will not pretend to provide specific meaningful solutions. However, as you battle this multi-headed monster, I offer you a number of faith principles from tradition for guidance. From Genesis we learn that we are all our brothers’ keepers, which is to say there is communal responsibility when individuals are suffering. Free markets do not have a conscience, but we the people do. The Book of Leviticus recognizes that there is always a gap between rich and poor, but that measures should be taken to minimize that reality. The original expression to “proclaim liberty throughout the land,” was precisely addressing that point as it preceded the Jubilee year. And though no one likes to pay taxes, Torah tradition long ago understood that all have to pay their fair share to maintain the institutions and services of a community. Along with the Prophets of old we merely ask that there be justice, integrity, honesty and safe guards to avoid inefficiency, abuse and corruption.
You enter office with multiple issues on the international stage. Foremost are the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no question that our country has real enemies out there as we experienced on 9/11. As a country we must be militarily strong if there is to be security and we pray for the safety of all our troops, naming in our hearts those friends and family currently serving abroad. But neither conflict seems open to clear-cut military solutions. We have potential friends whom we have alienated in recent years. Your election provides a unique opportunity to create channels of communication to pursue diplomatic progress. I am not so naïve to believe that words alone will suffice, but they are better than stone-walled silence. The Prophet teaches, “Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit shall we all live in peace.”
Certainly the fervent prayer of our Jewish community is that meaningful, sustainable, secure peace will come to Israel. It can be rightly argued that calm in Iraq will contribute to that, as will better relations between the United States and Israel’s neighbors. Palestinian leadership is fractured with no truly reliable partners for dialogue, while Israel’s government not infrequently takes actions, which complicate matters. Israel’s coming elections will likely result in new leadership with which to negotiate. I know that the Israel/Palestinian challenge can swallow up all your time. Here I do have a specific suggestion. Consider appointing someone with skill, credibility and clout to be solely dedicated to bringing about a real settlement between the two parties. (If Hillary’s not your Secretary of State, perhaps a Democratic past-President might be available and I most certainly am not referring to Jimmy Carter.) Israel is one of the highest priorities for the American Jewish community, but not the only concern.
Consistent with our values we believe your domestic agenda should include health care for all and quality education for all children. Again, I will not prescribe one specific approach over another, only that you keep your eye on the ultimate goal.
Since I am writing to you from New Orleans, I only somewhat selfishly ask that you not forget us. Katrina and subsequent storms have battered our city. We are a part of America providing countless gifts and benefits to all the country. Our tradition understood that in times past, one of the roles of government was to surround a community with protection, often with a wall. In our case that wall of protection consists of levees and wetlands. Positive steps have been taken, but much more needs to be done before we can feel safe. We look to you for that leadership.
Our community is like many others in that there continue to be difficult issues of equality. Immigration reform failed in the previous administration and passions run high on this issue. Almost all Americans were immigrants at one time and we should not close our doors to this land of opportunity. I encourage you to enact policies which will meaningfully protect our borders, but embrace hard working decent people who make a difference in our society. Let us also open our borders to allow those who seek freedom and can contribute to our society to do so, lest we stagnate.
Lastly, I call your attention to a subject for which you are uniquely qualified: Race in America. Your election alone is an important statement to our country and the world. Still there is hatred, prejudice, discrimination and unequal opportunity, as well as lack of understanding and compassion. You began to address this in a major speech in Philadelphia, relating to your connections with Rev. Wright. While this issue need not be at the top of your list, it will continue to be a festering sore that can not simply be solved with a band-aid if not addressed. You understand that this is not solely a matter of pigment, but includes economics and education and opportunity. Then we must address those root problems for all Americans. I doubt that we will ever be fully color blind, but let us at least do all we can to expose prejudice and injustice. People can and will have inappropriate feelings, but if we can teach them not to act upon them, then that will be progress.
Mr. President-elect we recognize that yours is an overwhelming agenda. We pledge our support to you as you begin this historic mission. In the same words that were expressed to our first President long ago by the Jews of Newport, we say to you: “May the angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the Promised Land conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life.”
Rabbi Robert H. Loewy