Sunday, November 23, 2014

Recognizing The Good

Deuteronomy 23:8 teaches us, "Do not abhor an Egyptian." Do not hate, do not despise an Egyptian.

Why the heck not?

I don't mean to be rude, but let's think about this for a moment. This commandment was given to the Israelites in the desert, not so long after having been freed from 400 years of slavery at the hand of the Egyptians. Those same Egyptians were the ones who, not so long before, had tried to wipe us out by throwing our babies into the Nile. Pardon me for saying this, but it seems that Egypt* may have earned a bit of hatred.

* Just to be clear, we're talking about the ancient Kingdom of Egypt, not modern Egypt and Egyptians. 

But, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that, as true as that narrative is, it's incomplete. It leaves out an important part of the story. Because, before they became our oppressors, the Egyptians were our saviors. In the book of Genesis, we hear of a great famine, and of how our ancestors were near starvation*. Egypt allowed us to enter as guests, and to settle there. And, in Egypt we survived, and we thrived.

* Those Canaan days...we used to know...

Without that hospitality, our people would have died out only a few generations after having been born. Without Egypt, there would be no Jews and no Judaism*. And, by extension, there would be no Christianity, or Islam. So, Egypt truly did earn our hatred. But, Egypt truly did earn our gratitude, as well.

* And no pastrami or matza ball soup, while we're at it.

And now, we get to choose which one to focus on.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is Hakarat HaTov, which literally translates as "recognizing the good." You see, there is always good around us, and there is always bad, as well. We can choose which one we want to see. Hakarat HaTov means learning to see, learning to notice the good that is in the world around us, rather than the bad. Gratitude is a choice which we can make, and gratitude is a skill we can develop — a muscle we can build. Opportunities for anger and bitterness abound in our world, but opportunities for joy and thankfulness live side-by-side with them, every moment of every day.

Let us learn to recognize the good in our world. Let us learn to recognize the blessing our lives. Let us learn to turn away from anger and resentment, and to turn towards love, and towards thanksgiving.

[This is a version of the teaching that I gave at our Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Sunday, November 23]

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