Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gratitude and Faith and my friend the Palestinian Imam at NSLF

As I write these words, I am sitting in Canberra airport feeling very blessed.  I am reflecting on the fact that I can do better at being grateful. I was talking to a friend a few days earlier who asked if I was traveling these days. I initially said no. Then I casually remembered that the next morning I was flying to Canberra (Australia’s capital) to be a co-keynote speaker with a Palestinian Australian Imam/Sheik Ahmad Abu Ghazaleh at the National Students Leadership Forum[i] dinner.  What a delightful privilege it was to be speaking to spiritually switched on, sincere student leaders grappling with the essential questions of life, values, faith and leadership and their hosts; members of Australia’s parliament.

I talked to them about faith as a choice rather than a by-product of certainty, and of the experiences Ahmad and I had in doing our work together[ii].  I told them my story of being an awkward kid from Brooklyn, who is now privileged to work with profoundly good people in deeply rewarding work. This is on top of the magnificent gift of being surrounded by a loving family. I should “come into His gates with thanks, (into) His courtyard with praises[iii].

First Fruits and Gratitude
I recited a verse in Hebrew from the Torah about faith and gratitude from our weekly reading about how a farmer must bring his first fruit to Jerusalem[iv] and recite a pre-prepared speech or declaration of gratitude. And you shall come to the kohen (Priest) who will be in those days, and say to him, "I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us..." The speech then recounts the slavery and “our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” in Egypt, the Exodus and the divine gift of the holy land.  

Enlarge the “Good” we are grateful for
It is instructive that the farmer does not merely thank God for some figs, or grapes. The fruit came from a good land which he sees as a gift from God. The fact that he is not a slave in Egypt suffering oppression and affliction is also somehow rolled into the gratitude relating to the little basket of fruit. There is a temptation to minimize some of the good that is done for us. Perhaps we don’t want to be too indebted. People says things like can you “just do this little thing for me?” The impact of this is to decrease gratitude. Instead we are taught to be like the good guest, and we should maximize the significance of what is done for us[v].

Talking Land with a Palestinian Sheik
As we were preparing our joint speech, Sheik Ahmad expressed some surprise about the way that I planned to talk about the holy land. In his speech he shared some of his own feelings about the holy land that he calls Palestine. He expressed his sadness about the time his son asked him to show him where he comes from on the world map, but there was no Palestine on the map. How to explain this to a child? 

Of course, we both want to see a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. This does not mean that we have developed a shared position on the politics of it, we have not. Instead it is about listening to each other with respect, empathy and curiosity. This is less than the full agreement that many people on either side want but it enables us to see each other as human beings and work together to ensure that people of many groups including Jews, Muslims and Arabs are viewed as people not political objects. Following the lesson relating to the first fruit, I assert emphatically that is no small thing to be grateful for. 

Contrast with being verbally abused
It helps to consider the possibility of not having something to appreciate what we do have. At the dinner, I contrasted the love and friendship I enjoy with Sheik Ahmad with my experience last week in Lakemba (a part of Sydney with a high Arabic population). Two young Arabic men saw me across the street and asked each other in Arabic, Yahudi? Is that a Jew? Yeah, I am a Yahudi, I shouted to them across the street and waved. Most of what they said in reply is not fit for print. It was rounded off with heil Hitler and included the words Zionist, Palestinian and 1948 among the profanities and abuse.

What were you thinking? My choice
At the conference a young Arabic Muslim man asked the following question. He said he lived in one of the Muslim areas that I described. “What were you thinking when you chose to walk down these streets (looking like I do, a clearly identifiable Jew?)? I explained that in spite of being well aware of all the arguments against trying to bridge the divides between Muslims and others generally and especially with Jews, I choose to focus on the positive I have a choice between focusing on the men who abused me or to focus on people like Sheik Ahmad and many other Muslims and Arabs of good will. I choose to act and think with good faith toward the possibilities of the human family.

Faith as choice rather than certainty
For some, faith in God or religion might be about expressing what they have discovered to be certainly true. For me, faith is more about choosing to prioritize one set of ideas and facts over another. Not everything in my religion resonates for me and fits comfortable with my ideas about how things should be.  There are certainly aspects of the behavior of some adherents of Judaism that make me want to cry out (almost) like the Prophet Jeremiah  O who would give (make it happen) that I had a guesthouse in the desert, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers…[vi]!  Yet, in spite of my reservations, I stick by my tradition. Like the choice I make to remain faithful to my work, this is a choice of faith, of being faithful to a path that carries in it great truths, guidance and sanctity alongside the other things I struggle with.

Gratitude to the Enemy?
Some might find it odd for a Jew to be expressing gratitude for a friendship with a Palestinian. Yet in our tradition we find Kind David expressing gratitude toward prince Hanun [vii] a member of the Amonite people who have the distinction of being one of the groups about whom it is written “do not seek their peace or good, forever[viii]”. These were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot who was cared for and even rescued by him from the sword and captivity. Instead of returning the favor to Abraham’s descendants these ingrates[ix]did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt” and passed near their territory.  David’s gratitude is justified creatively; it is only seeking the good of Amon that is a problem, not reciprocating it[x].    

A harsh thought about Gratitude
There is a confronting teaching that failure to appreciate the gifts we are given can result in these being taken away.  The passage about the first fruit follows the one that refers to the attack on the Israelites by Amalek[xi]. This juxtaposition hints at the idea that Amalek’s attack was a consequence of the Israelites being ingrates[xii], with their complaint “why did he bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children by thirst?!”  There is some poetic justice in the fact that the attackers themselves, the Amalek, who were descendants of Esau were also ingrates.  Because Abraham was told that his children will experience a difficult exile, either the children of Jacob or Esau would have to fulfill the prophecy. With the Israelites suffering Egyptian slavery, Amalek was freed of this burden. God says let the Amalekites who are ingrates and pay back the Israelites who were also Ingrates.

I find this a bit harsh. I would be inclined to think that a compassionate God will forgive me my inadequate gratitude and whingeing. Yet, there is a strong message here about working on developing an attitude of gratitude. I choose to keep faith with the guidance here and put my discomfort on the back burner. This is not to say, I deny the difficult bits. My blog has confronted some of these even when I don’t have a neat resolution but also side-stepped other issue. 

This dual approach plays out in the portion of the first fruit, we talk about our gratitude, we mention the ugly times in Egypt, yet there is a letter Yud (equivalent to the number 10) missing from the word וַיְבִאֵנוּ and he brought us[xiii] to signify the 10 tests Jews challenged God with[xiv]. Not mentioned, but not completely ignored either, just de-emphasised. This, I think, is the challenge of faith and gratitude, with eyes wide open, seeing cups both half empty and half full but choosing to give greater important to the good, the instructive and the promising.  

[iii] Psalms 104:3
[iv] Deuteronomy  26:1-15
[v] Yalkut Meam Loez, Rabbi Yaakov Cooli/Rabbi Yitzchak of Agriso & Rabbi Yitzchak Arguiti
[vi] Jeremiah 9:1
[vii] Chronicles I, 19:1-2… Nahash the king of Ammon died, and his son reigned in his stead. David said, "I shall show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, because his father showed me kindness." And David sent emissaries to comfort him concerning his father, and David's servants came to the land of the children of Ammon, to Hanun to comfort him.
[viii] Deuteronomy  23:4-7
[ix] Ramban
[x] Meam Loez
[xi] Deuteronomy 25:17-19
[xii] Tzemach David, quoted in Yalkut Meam Loez,
[xiii] Deuteronomy  26:9
[xiv] Baal Haturim


  1. A beautiful post, Reb Zalman! I, too, have valued friendships from people from every walk of life and faith. And I value them tremendously. Like you, my friends and I disagree greatly on a number of things, but we do not disagree about each others' humanity. I even have relationships with staunch Zionists. Like you said, it is important to listen ... that shouldn't be so threatening for anyone :) Oh, and you know I am a Muslim (converted from Judaism) and the Muslims call me "Yahudi" too, lol. Peace, Heshke

  2. Safiya/Heshke, thank you for your comment. I am sure the tone they use when they call you Yahudi is different to the one I heard the other day. :) the main thing of course is the listening and respect.

  3. It was so awesome to have you along at the forum. Look forward to hearing more of your stories. Paula

  4. Thanks a lot Paula. It was a very special experience for both of us to be with the Forum. Hope we can stay in touch with a lot of the great people we met. Zalman