Will Rogers couldn’t have said it better: “No nation has ever had more, yet no nation has ever had less.” And it’s easy to understand why the two go together.
The Talmud describes a person obsessed by the dream of becoming rich. If only he had a million dollars, he would be happy. So he labors tirelessly, clawing and scratching to amass his fortune, until what happens? The moment he finally makes his million, he immediately sets his sights on two million.
Human nature dictates that the more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe that we are entitled to have whatever we want, the less inclined we are either to be grateful for what we have or to recognize our obligations to others.
It’s somewhat heartening, therefore, that Thanksgiving has retained so prominent a place in American culture, even if most of us rarely give a passing thought to the Puritan ideals that gave birth to the holiday.
Who were the Pilgrims? The settlers who stepped off the Mayflower in 1620 were not adventurers or opportunists. They were devout Protestants seeking a pure, uncorrupted expression of the Christian values they had found wanting in their native England.
They paid a high price for their idealism: half of them died during that first, brutal, Massachusetts winter. But spring brought renewal and summer brought hope; when a successful corn harvest provided the prospect of surviving a second winter, the settlers declared a festival to thank their Creator for both their survival and their hard-won freedom from political and religious tyranny.
Political freedom was still a novel idea in Europe then, although the concept had existed for almost 3,000 years, since the time of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The notion of religious freedom was even more revolutionary, even though the first war against religious oppression had already been fought 17 centuries before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
It was in the second century BCE, about 150 years after Alexander the Great had conquered Israel, and the defenders of Jewish independence were battling not only their Syrian-Greek rulers but also the influence of Greek philosophy upon the Jewish people. Many Jews had embraced the progressive ideas of Hellenism, eagerly seeking to incorporate Greek aestheticism into their own Jewish practices.
The majority of Jews recognized that Judaism, with its focus on the perfection of the soul, was wholly incompatible with physical and intellectual self-worship that characterized Greek culture. Nevertheless, with the full power of the Seleucid Empire behind the Hellenists, the ideal of Jewish cultural purity seemed to have little hope of survival.
But the righteous rose up against the wicked, the weak rallied against the strong, and the many were vanquished by the few. Shouts of freedom echoed through the streets of Jerusalem as the Maccabees rekindled the lights of the Temple, and the festival of Hanukkah was established as “days of thanksgiving and praise to [the Almighty’s] great name.”
The complacency of the Jews and their unwillingness to toil for cultural integrity left them vulnerable to the danger of cultural extinction. The complacency of Christian Europe, in the eyes of the Puritans, led to a dilution and a depreciation of authentic religious values. And the ultimate realization of the Jews, like the realization of the Puritans centuries later, was that ideals for which we are unwilling to fight will disappear – if not in our lifetime, then certainly in the lifetime of our children.
The true heroes in any society are those prepared to fight for their ideals.
It has happened again and again. The Roman Empire tried to crush the will of their Jewish subjects; the Inquisitors of Spain burned Jewish “heretics” at the stake; the “enlightened” philosophers of 18th century Europe tried to seduce the Jews of Germany with their so-called rationalism; and the Jews of Russia were bewitched by promises of liberty, equality and, two generations later, Marxist utopianism. Even the Maccabees lost their way within a generation (as did the Puritans, who inflicted the same kind of oppression on others that had been inflicted upon them).
In the end, only those who continuously resisted the assault upon the soul of Judaism ensured the survival of their own souls and the souls of future generations.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that we will not attain freedom from a feather bed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that most Americans would prefer a feather bed to freedom. Indeed, the true heroes in any society are those prepared to fight for their ideals, those ready to sacrifice for a higher purpose, those who understand that nothing of value ever comes cheap or easy. When we take freedom for granted, we will not remain free for long. And the surest way of taking anything for granted is by failing to express appreciation.
Life begins with struggle; and when struggle ends life ends with it. This may well be the secret of Jewish continuity, which has outlived the countless nations and empires and ideologies that have done everything in their power to destroy us, and who survive only in the pages of history books.
But even more than that, it is that very struggle that makes life worth living. Comfort and complacency lead to apathy, and a life of apathy is scarcely better than no life at all. Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah remind us to be grateful not just for the success, but even for the struggle.
Especially for the struggle.