The American and Biblical Spirit

The American and Biblical Spirit

 As we approach Thanksgiving, we might naturally ask ourselves, “What does our country stand for?” Some things that come to my mind:

  • universal, public education
  • job training for our fellow citizens to meet our future needs
  • health care
  • helping refugees fleeing despotic regimes who come to us
  • advocating for basic human rights across the globe
  • a creative, pioneer spirit
  • compassion for others

As I read this brief list, I am struck that this is precisely what our Tanakh (Jewish Bible) teaches and promotes:

  • sharing our bread with the hungry
  • freeing the oppressed
  • providing material, emotional, and spiritual support for people in need

Our tradition encourages us to rise above involvement in self, to feel a sense of responsibility to and for others. Elliot Richardson,[1] who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, gave this apt summation:

In concept, the ethic and the act of concern for the welfare of one’s fellow human beings is, as we all know, a very deep part of the Hebraic tradition. It is a foundation stone of the Judeo-Christian ethic. It is a particularly American quality.”

But such lofty sentiments are not meant merely to guide government policies, but also the actions of individual citizens–you and me. We need to revitalize our desire to serve the ideals upon which our country was founded, a need to serve a common cause with common sense.

It seems that pessimism, distrust, cynicism, negativity, and hate are winds that blow fiercely in our country. What we need to counter this is not heroics but healing; not revolution but responsibility; not pandering but policies; not selfishness but service; not rage but reason; not the suffering of oppression but the spirit of opportunity; not jeopardy but justice; and, above all, not plundering but planting.

Our constitution begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” The emphasis lands on “We, the people.” We, the people, must together strive to make our society and culture better. In the Hebrew Bible and on earth today, there is not messiah–only us.

How we show our gratitude–this Thanksgiving and every day–for the teachings of our biblical tradition and how we work toward the betterment of our country, whose magnificent and magnanimous ethos derived to a large degree from our biblical tradition, will be very telling.

As Rabbi Norman Lamm,[2] the former chancellor of Yeshiva University, suggested,

We pray that not by the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air, may we have proof that the flag is still there–but by the tranquility of our citizens’ souls, the decency of their actions, and unspoiled quiet of nature’s dawn will we have proof that the stars and stripes are forever.

The narrow view (and “narrowness” is the meaning of Egypt!) counsels, “Watch out for yourself.” The broad view (associated with Biblical tradition) commends, “Watch out for others.” Our biblical tradition and American values represent a triumph of altruism over egotism.

May this Thanksgiving find us grateful for both our Jewish and American traditions.

May we consider ourselves part of “We, the people” and act accordingly.

May we take the broad view and watch out for our fellow Americans–in our

neighborhoods, in our work spaces, and those whom we never even encounter.

May we rise above self and place ourselves within the larger Jewish and American


Amen. A meaningful and joyful Thanksgiving holiday!


Rabbi J.B. Sacks


[1] Elliot Richardson (1920-1999) is one of only two individuals (the other is George Shultz) who has held four cabinet positions within the U.S. government. In his case, these were: Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; Secretary of Defense; Attorney General; and Secretary of Commerce. He also displayed heroism during the Watergate scandal, refusing to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox (he resigned).

[2] Rabbi Norman Lamm (1927-2020) was a Modern Orthodox academic, author, and Jewish community leader. He was the first Chancellor of Yeshiva University born in the United States and saved the institution financially and raised its academic level and standing.