Whenever a person receives a favor or gift, he should acknowledge the good he has received. The willingness to say "thank you" is a hallmark of maturity.
In America, we have much to be thankful for. Our country has a high standard of living. We enjoy comforts that our parents and grandparents could never have envisioned. And the future is even more promising, for science and technology are always expanding our horizons.
Nor is it only in the material realm that we have reason to be grateful. Our society offers us standards of freedom and justice that exist in few other nations. We are committed to equality and tolerance, and determined to stop mistreatment due to differences in race, creed or color. Yes, imperfections still abound, but the avowed purpose of the United States of America is to offer each person the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The fact that we enjoy both material and social blessings is not coincidental. The just employment of our human resources maximizes our ability to tap our material resources. Many countries are endowed with material wealth, yet their people live in need because prejudice and selfishness prevent these resources from being shared, and smother the creativity needed to make use of them.
Social harmony and justice also bring about G-d's blessing. The Bible tells us: "G-d will bless you in all that you do," implying that our conduct influences the manner in which His blessings are bestowed. By building a just society, we have created a medium for G-d's beneficence.
Nevertheless, the awareness of these blessings should not dull our sensitivity to the problems we face. We are today witnessing a gradual erosion of many of the values that made our country great. The strength of our culture's moral fiber is being brought into question.
Take, for instance, the soaring crime rate, which is occurring not only in the inner cities, where necessity might drive a person to crime, but in fine middle-class neighborhoods where children have every material thing they need. Even upscale neighborhoods are producing hardened lawbreakers. Our streets and schools are violent. There are teachers who are afraid to enter their classrooms and many of us would not feel comfortable walking around our neighborhoods at night.
White-collar crime has become common place, as fraud and dishonesty is rampant in both the private and public sectors. The present President is being investigated, and the son of the previous President was convicted.
For the first time, the "American Dream" of ever-increasing prosperity for all is being challenged. Young adults entering the job market have fewer opportunities than their parents did.
The difficulties we confront are not merely external. In fact, the root of the problem is internal. In many sectors of our society, we have seen the collapse of the traditional family structure. Use of drugs and alcohol is no longer considered shocking; it's part of life. Legions of people feel lonely and unfulfilled.
On both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, many feel they are being left by the wayside. There is a wide feeling that those who prosper neither know nor care about the daunting challenges many of their fellow Americans face.
It's time to take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and see our strengths and our weaknesses, to ask ourselves who we are and where we're heading.
A tightrope walker was once asked the secret of his success. "It's my eyes," he explained. "I keep them riveted on the pole in front of me. When you know where you're going, you know where to put your feet.
What's the most difficult challenge? The turns, because you lose sight of one pole and the other has not yet come into view."
American society was fashioned by people who endured suffering to create a culture which was just and good. They built that society on truths which G-d had imprinted into the fabric of existence. As America grew, it continued to be guided by these fundamental principles.
But, just as a person must adjust to new surroundings, so too, as our society has moved from the farm to the city, and from the factory to the computer, we must reevaluate our lifestyle.
Too often, we are caught up in a routine and forget our real purpose. Habit guides our lives. We just go on doing what we have been doing, without taking the time to see whether we're on course or not.
Such "spot checks" are always worthwhile. A one-degree error in direction at the center of a circle may appear inconsequential, but as one reaches the circumference it becomes significant. The larger the circle, the larger the digression. You can take off intending to land in Jerusalem and find yourself in Uganda.
This message is especially relevant to the present age. In previous generations, lives followed more clearly mapped-out patterns, so it was easier for people to chart their future. Today, in all walks of life, the rate of change has increased dramatically, sweeping away accepted conventions and forcing us to redraw the maps that guided us. These days, if you aren't flexible enough to rethink your future, you may find yourself out of synch with what is happening, left behind and consigned to the ashheap.
And yet, this willingness to rethink must involve only external factors. The key to success is the possession of a set of internal values that are immutable and unchanging, truths which are self-evident.
These underlying principles should dictate how we tackle the challenges life hurls in our path. We cannot be merely reactive, allowing immediate pressures to determine our response. How these principles are expressed in life may change, but the principles themselves should provide the bedrock on which we build our lives.
When Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, began spreading Chassidism in Russia, the Czarist government thought he wanted to foment a revolution. The rabbi was arrested and held for questioning.
As his interrogation dragged on, many Russian officials were impressed by the prisoner's wisdom, and arranged informal meetings with him. One of these officials was a man who had studied the Bible.
"Why," he asked, "before G-d punished Adam for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, did He ask him: 'Where are you?' G-d is omniscient. Why did He have to ask Adam where he was?"
Rabbi Zalman looked his visitor straight in the eye and told him: "The Torah is eternal. G-d's question to Adam is addressed to every man, at every point in his life. At all times, G-d is asking us: 'Where are you? What are you doing to fulfill your purpose in life?' "
We must have a guiding light through which everything is filtered. That is why, at the heart of every successful person and society, lies a written or unwritten statement of purpose, a declaration of principles.
When the founding fathers of the USA came from Europe, they wanted to build a society that gave each person the chance to attain the fullest expression of his potential. They drafted several important documents which serve as a mission statement for America, communicating the fundamental ideals on which this society is based. These include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Our founding fathers also understood the need for a succinct message, so they made a summary of these principles.
And where did they place it? On money!
Printed on every American coin and on one dollar bills are two messages: "In G-d We Trust" - a reminder that our society is built on a foundation of spiritual truth ("One Nation under G-d,") and E Pluribus Unum ("Out of the Many, One") - a promise that none will impose his views on another.
Why did they choose money? First of all, because money is something to which we are constantly exposed. And money is important; our Sages call it "that which enables man to stand on his feet," for money provides the means to fulfill our needs.
Yet, money and materialism are the most serious threats to our society! It is the selfish desire to take and not to give that is the real danger in any group of men. And so our founding fathers put this fundamental lesson precisely where this selfish desire can so easily be manifest.
There once was a Chassid who was a very successful lumber tycoon. When tallying up his annual income and expenses, he wrote as the total the verse: "There is nothing aside from Him."
For the Chassid, this awareness was the product of a lifetime of toil in Divine service. And yet, an American can gain this understanding simply by looking at a coin!
Let us consider the meaning of these terms. The founding fathers used the expression "In G-d We Trust," not "In G-d We Believe."
Why? Because belief does not necessarily affect one's conduct. Our Sages say that before breaking into a home, a thief prays asking G-d for success in his work.
Does such a person believe in G-d? Yes, because he's praying to Him. But then, how can he steal?
That's just the point. Faith and belief touch a point above our minds. We don't believe in G-d based on intellectual proof, but on faith.
We cannot understand G-d, for His infinity dwarfs our intellect. On the contrary, we relate to Him by transcending our logic, giving ourselves over to an inner sense of His presence. Since G-dliness is the ultimate truth of all existence, we all have the potential to realize His existence. This realization is not merely intellectual; it's an actual experience of Him, a still, small voice, whose message resounds above and penetrates beneath the din of worldly experience.
But because faith is above intellect, it leaves room for a dichotomy. Like the thief, a person's beliefs can be separated from his mind and conduct. Many people speak about believing in G-d, or having G-d in their hearts. The challenge of faith is not only to believe. Indeed, merely having faith is no challenge at all, since faith is an inherent part of our existence. Our challenge is to act on faith, to have our spiritual commitment influence our daily thinking and conduct. That's what trust in G-d means.
A reform Rabbi was granted a personal audience with the Rebbe. "Why is it," he asked the Rebbe, "that all your followers have a look that appears childishly simplistic?"
"It is not naiveté," the Rebbe answered, "it is the lack of a dichotomy. People often have a split between their selves and their ideals, their lives and their principles. This causes internal strife and tension. Chassidism promotes wholeness."
Trust is like a trust
fund, or like an object entrusted
for safekeeping. In such an instance, one relies on the trustee. He may be asked to carry out an active role or a passive one, depending on the nature of the contract. But in both instances, the person entrusted with the property has been given a hand in shaping what will happen to it.
Saying "In G-d We Trust" does more than make a general statement of belief in G-d; it invites Him to become an active partner in our lives. That's what the founding fathers meant when they imprinted this motto on our currency.
A wealthy man spent much of his free time cruising on his yacht. Once, he hired a new captain. Several times a day, the employer would ask the captain "Where is east?" and then go away without saying why he needed the information.
Curious, the captain asked his employer for an explanation. The employer explained that Jewish law requires one to pray three times each day, and that these prayers must be recited facing Jerusalem.
This made a deep impression on the captain. Here was a man prosperous enough to buy an expensive yacht and employ him to navigate it. And yet this magnate felt the need to have a Greater Power steer his life.
This trust in G-d is a fundamental necessity. It is impossible to build a just and moral society without trust in G-d and reliance on His principles.
A generation ago, this statement could have been contested on the battleground of logic. This is no longer the case, for recent history provides the clearest and most telling proof. In the early 1900s, the leader of civilization, the master of science and culture, philosophy and ethics was Germany. And look what happened! The most hideous crimes and atrocities in history were perpetrated - all in the name of humanity's advancement. By and large, the champions of science and culture did not stand up to the Nazi regime. I lived in Germany at that time, and saw the overwhelming majority, not only of the common people, but also of the intelligentsia, collaborate with the Nazi regime.
What was lacking? The awareness of a G-d-given, objective standard of spiritual truth. Without such a standard, we - as a society and as individuals - can set his own values capriciously, and then justify them to ourselves and others.
The Torah says: "Bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous." When a wise man takes a bribe, it does not destroy his wisdom, but perverts it; he remains intelligent, but his intellect will now lead him down a crooked road.
There is no greater bribe than self-love. Self-concern can cause a person (or a society) to lose sight of truth and justice, and instead take advantage of - and sometimes even maliciously abuse - others without realizing it. Perversely, they will argue that they are doing good.
Is there a way out? Not according to mortal wisdom, for this is always subject to the bribes of self-concern. There is a need for an unchanging, objective standard, a framework of G-dly truth and laws to serve as the basis for our lives and society.
The Rebbe of one of the Chassidic communities in Israel wanted to discourage his followers from feeling the need to keep up with the Joneses, so he set a ceiling on the amount a couple could pay for a new apartment.
The prospective father-in-law of one of this Rebbe's followers sought an audience with him to explain why his son-in-law-to-be should not be bound by this restriction. "I can understand why others need these guidelines," the future father-in-law said, "after all, they don't have the means. But I have enough money to buy my son-in-law an expensive apartment without suffering financially."
"And you want to use your money to buy your son-in-law an expensive apartment?" the Rebbe asked.
"Yes," replied the father-in-law. "I have enough money to do so."
"Then go buy him another Rebbe too," came the answer.
Maimonides writes near the end of the Mishnah Torah
, his all-encompassing code of Jewish law:
"Moses was commanded by the Almighty to influence the world's inhabitants to accept the seven commandments given to the descendants of Noah.... [These commandments should be] accepted and observed because G-d commanded them... and instructed us about them through Moses.... One who observes them out of intellectual conviction [alone] is neither pious... nor wise."
The seven commandments include
prohibitions against the worship of false gods, blasphemy, murder, incest and adultery, theft, eating flesh from (and by extension, all cruelty to) a living animal, and the responsibility to establish just laws and courts.
These principles have served as the basis for the legal systems of most civilizations throughout the ages, for almost every society has seen the importance of protecting human life, property and the structure of the family. Maimonides, however, provides a firm foundation for this morality: the acceptance of G-d's commandments.
Justice and ethics cannot be secure if nourished by fickle mortal wisdom alone. At the core must lie an objective yardstick, a standard of G-dly truths by which we can always evaluate our conduct.
The Ten Commandments reflect this principle. The second five of these commandments contain the moral guidelines which mankind has always recognized. Yet what is significant is that these guidelines were given together with the first five commandments, which focus on belief in G-d and our spiritual responsibilities to Him.
One cannot exist without the other. Genuine faith in G-d requires moral conduct, and moral conduct can continue in a steady, ongoing way only when based on trust in G-d.
This is the heritage given to us by our founding fathers. With trust in G-d, they, like our forefather Abraham, undertook a perilous journey to a new and unknown land. They built a society in which the moral laws which G-d engraved into the fabric of existence would be observed, thereby creating an environment in which mankind could flourish materially and spiritually.
Their vision has borne fruit, producing the world's greatest superpower. It is not the force of arms which has established this supremacy, but rather the principles of freedom and justice which have generated the vigor that propels the United States to the forefront of world nations.
For this leadership to continue, we must renew our awareness of the fundamentals on which our society is based, and learn again how to express them in our lives.
- (Back to text) Deuteronomy 15:18.
- (Back to text) Sanhedrin 110a, commenting on Deuteronomy 11:6.
- (Back to text) Deuteronomy 4:35.
- (Back to text) Berachos 63a.
- (Back to text) Deuteronomy 16:19.
- (Back to text) Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Melachim 8:10-11.
- (Back to text) Ibid. 9:1.