Originally published in 2002 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun.
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 observes that the moment a person acquires $100, he immediately wants $200. The more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe in our own entitlement, the more likely we are to forget both our humble origins and 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 first Thanksgiving.
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 summer brought hope, and out of hope they declared a festival to thank their Creator for their survival and for their hard-won religious freedom.
Political freedom was still a novel idea in Europe then, although the concept had existed for nearly 3,000 years, since the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The notion of religious freedom, introduced to the world somewhat later, was already 17 centuries old when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Back then, the Jewish nation had been at war not only with the Selucid Greeks, which controlled Israel, but also with itself. The Hellenist Jews found much in Greek culture that they admired and eagerly sought to incorporate into Jewish practice, while the majority of the Jews recognized the inherent incompatibility of Judaism, with its focus on the perfection of the soul, and Grecianism, with its self-worship of body and intellect. Behind the Hellenists, however, towered the full power of the Selucid Empire, before which the ideal of Jewish cultural purity seemed to have little hope of survival.
But the weak rose up 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 in purity, and the festival of Chanukah was established as “days of thanksgiving and praise to [the Almighty’s] great name.”
The complacency of the Jews and their unwillingness to toil in the preservation of their own cultural values put them in danger of cultural extinction. The complacency of Christian Europe, in the eyes of the Puritans, led to a dilution and a depreciation of Christian values. And the ultimate realization of the Jews, like the realization of the Puritans centuries later, was that ideals not fought for and defended cease to remain ideals.
The true heroes in any society are those prepared to struggle for their ideals, those ready to sacrifice for a greater good, those who understand that nothing of value ever comes cheap or easy. When we take freedom for granted, we stand in danger of losing it. 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. Indeed, it is that very struggle that makes life worth living. Both Thanksgiving and Chanukah remind us to be grateful not just for the success, but even for the struggle.
Especially for the struggle.