Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Sameach!


There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see
Malcolm Muggeridge

For the past four or five years, the southern branch of the organization of the Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) holds a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner here in Beer Sheva.
This year's dinner was held on Erev Thanksgiving, i.e., the evening before Thanksgiving, Wednesday night. It was a huge success, with more people in attendance than ever. 
Last May, I stepped down from the position of chairperson of the Southern Branch of AACI. I nonetheless had the hono(u)r of giving a short speech to thank the people who made the evening possible. 
And this is (more or less) how it went. Commentary will be in red and in brackets.

My name is Reesa Stone. (I have lived in Beer Sheva for almost 30 years. I thought I knew just about all the English-speakers in town. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn't know about half of the over 70 people in attendance, and most had no idea who I was either. And here I thought I was infamous.) 

I am Canadian. (I said this with a sigh, and the correct response was supposed to be 'We love you Reesa', but no, nobody seemed to care.)

Nonetheless, I yam very happy be here. (geddit I yam – that’s my contribution to Thanksgiving). (I actually didn't say this - though it was written on the page. I forgot to say 'yam' and the joke didn't seem worth going back for.... so those who heard me speak last night get an extra joke. )

First, before anything, I want to thank the people who are responsible for tonight’s event:

1. Beer Sheva resident Chef Doron Degen, owner of the Yom Yom Grill and Sandwich Bar opposite the old location of Gong near City Hall. We urge you all to go and try it, if you haven’t already. (I'm leaving his name in because the food really was good, and he deserves the advertising. Go try him out. He opened his Grill and Sandwich Bar just before the summer's war and took a beating.)

2. T, who has stepped in to be de facto chairperson of the southern branch of AACI, after the previous person abandoned the post and disappeared. (Absolutely nobody laughed at this. I was the chairperson before T). T has been the liaison between AACI and Mishan, (the assisted living home in which we held the dinner) which brings me to the next thank you to Mishan for allowing us to use their beautiful premises on several occasions.

3. And finally, thanks to my good friends B and M for planning and organizing this evening. I know that a great deal of time was spent on the details of this evening. Their only mistake was allowing me to say a few words… (nobody laughed at this either. They just nodded their heads.)

(slight pause)

I write a blog. I try to keep it light. I try to write only good things about life in Israel, and what a hoot it is to live here.
But sometimes, it’s really hard to be funny. It’s hard to make jokes when all around you is burning. Since the war over the summer, it’s been difficult for me to write. I have felt that there is nothing for me to say.

I volunteered to speak tonight long ago, when I thought my head would be clearer, but that hasn't happened.

So when in doubt of what to say, I look to our sources. There is always something.

And sure enough:

In Parshat HaShavu of last week, Toldot, we read of Yitzchak Avinu’s move to Beer Sheva:

And he (Yitzchak Avinu) went up from there (Grar and Rechovot) to Beer Sheva. 
. וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם בְּאֵר שָׁבַע: 

And the Lord appeared to him on that night and said, "I am the God of Abraham, your father. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham, My servant.

. וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהֹוָה בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי: 
Genesis, 26:23-24

Well that’s promising. Beer Sheva, blessings, and fear not. All the things I need to hear.
But in this week’s Parsha, VaYeitzeh, we read:
 And Yaakov (Yitzchak's son) left Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran. 
. וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה: 
Genesis 28:10

Yaakov left Beer Sheva because he was afraid of Esav. So much for fear not. And he was afraid because he received Esav’s blessing. So much for blessings. And he left Beer Sheva.
So much for Beer Sheva.

The text says that Yaakov left Beer Sheva to go to Haran. Well, duh. To go somewhere, you have to leave somewhere. And we already knew where Yaakov lived, so why repeat it?  Rashi explains it says that he left Beer Sheva because when a great man leaves town the whole town is diminished. 

And indeed, from there on in, Beer Sheva is barely mentioned throughout the Bible.

The sons of the prophet Samuel were judges in Beersheba (I Samuel 8:2) but the thought is that they were banished here because they were not the best of judges. 
King Saul built a fort here for his campaign against the Amalekites (I Samuel 14:48 and 15:2–9) and then left after he killed them all. 
The prophet  Eliyahu took refuge in Beersheba when queen Jezebel ordered him killed (I Kings 19:3). Beer Sheva was a safe place to hide. Nobody was going to go ALL THE WAY to Beer Sheva to look for some prophet. Even then, it was much further from Jerusalem to Beer Sheva than from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem. (any true Beer Shevaite will understand the reference.)
And finally, the prophet Amos mentions the city; this is what he says: do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. 
Which is what most of my friends said before we moved here.

Living in Israel and in the Negev is sometimes hard. Over the summer we had yet another war. In the last few months, we have suffered heinous piguim.

Canada, where I come from, on the other hand, has no natural enemies. Except maybe some Americans who can’t find Canada on a map. My siblings’ kids aren't in any army. No need for any iron dome.

I've been in Israel a long time and the only advice I ever give to new olim (immigrants) is to never  compare Israel to the Old Country. I take pride in the fact that I almost never said “we don’t do it that way in Canada.” Or “it’s not like this in Canada.” But sometimes, when I talk about the weather, and I’m wearing sandals during Chanuka, then I say “It’s not like this in Canada!” (here I waved my hands about, and gave a little smirk. Take that Old Country!)

Very recently, my nephew, who made Aliyah almost three years ago, got married. My brother and his family came to Israel – for the first time in many years – and I got to hang out with my brother.

We sat in the sun drinking coffee. In November. You can’t do that in Canada. (Smirk) And I said to him, “This. This never gets old. Sitting in the sun drinking coffee is good for the soul. Seeing palm trees in the streets, and jacarandas next to my house – well, you don’t have that in Canada. "

For years and years and years and years, Yaakov Avinu’s departure from Beer Sheva was felt. There was almost no Jewish settlement in Beer Sheva.

Until great men and great women began to return to their Land, to the Negev, and to Beer Sheva. And they, you, us, have made it, once again, a blessed and great Land, where miracles are a daily occurrence. Where, in Beer Sheva, we can drink coffee in the sun even on the rainiest day of the year like today. (It's been pouring all over the country for the past 48 hours. Here in Beer Sheva, I was able to dry my laundry outside.)
The days of November/December/Kislev are the shortest and the darkest days of the year. It is known that the order of the world is ברישא חשוכא והדר נהורא, first comes darkness then comes light. G-d created darkness and then light. In fact, light comes out of the darkness. And we know that the smallest light can dispel the darkness. The smallest act of goodness; drinking coffee in the sun, a hug, an evening out with friends, a meal with family, can make us realize how blessed we are to be living in our Land. 

G-d told Isaac not to fear and then blessed him. 

We must remember that blessing, and not fear.
Every morning we wake up is a blessing.
Every morning we wake up in Israel is a double blessing.
Every day in Israel, we are witness to miracles.
Every day in Israel is a gift.

So I’ll end with this.

Tonight is erev Thanksgiving . I ask you all that tonight – and any other night you want – take the time to count your blessings and not your calories.

Thanksgiving Sameach!!