This Thanksgiving, I'm Grateful To Be A Stranger
Thanksgiving is a strange day in the Blumenthal home. Despite the past fifteen years of living in the US, Thanksgiving remains foreign to me. Of course, I enjoy a deep-fried turducken as much as the next carnivorous patriot. (Though I still struggle with eating cranberry-apple pie as anything other than dessert.)
My wife, on the other hand, has deep emotions about the day. Thanksgiving for her, conjures warm feelings of family, belonging and nostalgia.
So this year, in this divisive climate, I took some time to think about my gratitude to the USA. I certainly feel a deep sense of gratitude to this wonderful country for all the opportunities it has given me. On a communal and national level, I am grateful to this country for providing the safety and freedom that has enabled our community to flourish and our children to grow.
But more than anything, I am grateful to the Master of the World that I still feel like a stranger.
(Disclaimer: I should probably begin with an apology. I really don't want to make anyone upset, and I realize that this might hit a nerve. My intention here is to speak what is on my heart and mind. My hope is that this might share a little light, and bring us closer to each other and to Avinu SheBashamayim.)
I grew up in a tumultuous South Africa. That instability has not gotten better – and if anything, it's gotten worse. Notwithstanding, my friends and family were always proudly South African, and to this day, I am as well.
This pride manifested in our support of sports teams (which were often disappointing), our insistence that South African food was objectively superior to all other cuisine (still true). Not to mention the knowledge that our accents were far more valuable than our currency.
But despite all of that cultural pride and patriotism, I always understood that being a Jewish South African meant that my identity needed to be far deeper than my nationality. Growing up, there was a notable distance between my Jewish inner world and South African outer world. This gave me the ability to express gratitude to my county, as well as to express criticism and even cynicism without it affecting the way I looked at myself and my community. To put it succinctly: I never thought of South Africa as “mine”, and I never expected South Africa to prioritize my needs and interests.
I have found that this is not the case in US. American Jews often see this great country as “theirs”. This creates a sense of expectation that Jewish concerns will be taken seriously and be prioritized by governments and officials. There is little to no distance between the inner and outer worlds of American Jewish – regardless of levels of observance. It seems to me that many US Jews see their political affiliation as an integral part of their identity, and see political involvement as “This is how I think we should run our country....“.
As a natural result of this perspective, disagreements in the realm of government, policy and politics have become almost indistinguishable from personal attacks. My wife, a social worker, has a number of clients that needed multiple sessions to discuss strategies for how to cope with the emotional challenge of their political candidate losing the election. People react to local and national news with personal angst, and parents often view the political orientation of their children to be a success or failure of their home education.
Please note: There is no question whether or not we should get involved in politics. Those that can, most certainly should. We owe it to ourselves to be well represented, and we owe it to the United States to participate in government and democracy.
I am simply left wondering why people care so deeply, and while it is difficult for me to fully discern the source of my discomfort, it's getting more difficult to ignore.
To some extent, this discomfort is driven by my own personal experiences as an immigrant, as well as my dreams of Aliya, and a philosophy that places Eretz Yisrael as the eventual destination of every Jew.
But if you would press me to express this discomfort, I'd say that I'm bothered by just how much we've settled here – in both senses of the word. It is this challenge with which our Parsha begins:
The Torah tells us that Yaakov finally arrived back in Eretz Yisrael this Shabbos: “וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו – And Yaakov settled in the Land where his father lived.”
Rashi famously quotes the Medrash:
ביקש יעקב לישב שלוה קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף Yaakov wished to live at ease, but trouble in connection with Yosef suddenly came upon him.
We should be bothered by this Medrash on multiple counts. Most notably, what was Hashem's objection to Yaakov settling in the Land of Israel? What makes the Medrash assume that there was some inappropriate intention on Yaakov's part? And why should this all result in the tragedy of Yosef and his brothers?
The Kli Yakar explains: Yaakov was attempting וַיֵּשֶׁב – to settle in a place and time where he was still supposed to be a גר – a stranger like his father, Yitzchak. Hashem had already told Avraham that his children “would be strangers in a strange land.” Yaakov was trying to subvert that feeling of strangeness by settling in the Land of Israel already.
There is immense value in feeling out of place. It allows us to develop an internal world of independent self-worth. It enables us to cultivate values in contradistinction to those around us. And once we have fully incubated our identity, our strangeness gives us the unique ability to rely on Hashem alone.
Lacking that perspective, Hashem needed to bring Yaakov's children down to Mitzrayim where we would be forced to feel strange.
On the surface, feelings of strangeness and distance from the culture around us are painful. But beneath that discomfort lies the greatest superpower of our history:
Consider, for a moment, that the first Jew to be enslaved in Egypt was Yosef HaTzadik. At his lowest moment, in the most painful of places, Yosef finds himself wrongfully accused and thrown into prison. There, he meets the Chief Baker and Butler of Paroah, and asks them: מדוע פניכם רעים היום – why are you so upset today?
It's an absurd question. Imagine the response: “Why are we upset? How about the fact that we're stuck in prison until the end of time, with no hope of rescue?! Why are you not upset?!” But that's not how they respond at all, because Yosef is, against all odds, not constantly beat down and hopeless. Instead, these two men reveal to Yosef their hopes, dreams and fears.
Apparently, Yosef, who has spent a decade in prison thus far, was still able to keeps his hopes up, knowing that Hashem is in charge. This hope, serenity and joy drew in even the most depressed and despondent captives and they wanted to share a little of Yosef's light.
This is our superpower: Our identities and our moods can exist completely independently from anything and everything around us. Stepping into this mindset gives us hope, light, freedom and perspective. It also endows us with the capacity to see differences of opinion as external and incidental.
Yosef achieves status as the greatest stranger in our history. He becomes viceroy over Egypt, and yet his inner world remains unfazed and untouched by the world around him.
It is this feeling that I am clinging to, hoping for, davening for, and trying to share this Thanksgiving:
Thank you to these United States for all the kindness you have shown to my family, and my community. And Thank You, Ribono Shel Olam for allowing me to feel that no matter how good (or bad) things are here, our home is still in Eretz Yisrael, with Klal Yisrael, and with You.