There’s a story told about the ancient, fabled Eastern European Jewish city of Chelm, in which the elders of the community hired a young and impecunious young man to sit at the main city gate and keep watch for the Messiah.
The months went on and turned into years, and the seasons changed time after time, summer to autumn to winter to spring and then summer again, while the young man, now somewhat older, sat faithfully at the gate, watching down the road to announce the arrival of the Messiah when he came.
After a considerable time had gone by, the now gray-bearded man presented himself to the city elders.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he told them. “Go ahead, we are listening closely,” they replied.
“You know I have been watching faithfully all these years for the Messiah, and I have never once been anything but attentive or shirked my duty in any way.”
“Oh, yes,” the elders said. “We have often commented, each to another, that we could have hardly found another person so diligent as yourself to perform this important task. Tell us, what is your question?”
“Thank you for those very kind words,” he said. “But my question is this. Do you think you might be able to increase my pay a bit?”
The elders, taken aback, retreated to a corner of the room to discuss this sudden request. Finally, after much head-shaking and hubbub, the chief elder came back to the man.
“We am sorry,” he said, “but we simply cannot afford to increase your pay at this time. However, I am authorized to tell you this: We understand that the pay may not be much.
“But at least the work is steady.”
SO, WHILE I, TOO, AWAIT the arrival of the Messiah, I found myself in the wake of Nov. 6 turning more and more to the idea of Thanksgiving.
That is, how we should be contemplating steadily and faithfully day by day the everlasting virtue of thankfulness more than just exercising it once a year in the context of a transitory holiday, which is now upon us and seems almost lost in the commercial din of Christmas.
That holy day itself appears to begin on July 4 and reach its peak not on Dec. 25 but tomorrow, the day of commercial celebration, which is appropriately named Black Friday.
I found I wanted to discover—or, better, recall—a few things that we could give thanks for both on the day set apart for that purpose in our country and our culture, and in the context of our entire lives as Americans.
THE FIRST is the fact that we remember, or at least many of us do, that it is appropriate to give thanks at all.
We seem to be becoming a society in which we assert a contradictory message about our nature: we claim individual sovereignty over our bodies and our lives to the point where we believe can do anything with them, while simultaneously looking to the power of government to provide for our material well-being.
It does not seem to occur to those who hold this attitude that it is roughly the same as waltzing into a lion’s cage to curl up against its fur to find warmth on a cool night.
The predatory beast, if it is well-fed at the moment, may allow the unaccustomed familiarity, but will soon demand the lion’s share in payment.
And while some people appear to think that “the lion’s share” means “more than half,” it really means “everything.”
Lions, after all, do not share. And governments, unless under tight restraints of law and custom, will always grab for more and more power.
Conservatives, however, know what divides dictatorship, ordered freedom and anarchy, the last of which cannot ever be a permanent state of affairs.
People either control themselves or they will be controlled by externalities; and we are so constructed that, as the Founders of our nation knew, we either live by eternal principles or are ruled by our desires.
And people who let their wants and demands rule them are begging for a political ruler who promises everything at first and takes everything at last.
Thanksgiving Day, therefore, is worth celebrating, indeed, in the joy of family and friends, but most of all because it reminds us that there is Someone to whom thanks is due. Without that reminder, we would be alone with our passions and our flaws.
But we are not alone. So let us be eternally grateful for that.
• We have our Army and Navy, Air Force and Marines, Coast Guard and police officers and firefighters, emergency medical personnel and so many others for whom the call of duty is a constant presence in their lives.
• We have those who labor for little money to care for the elderly and infirm, and those who tend our sicknesses of body and mind, and those who minister to us at all hours of the day or night when our souls cry out for care.
We give them thanks for their service, and we know that they are the pillars of our society, the people without whom pain and suffering would be far more prevalent, and our nation itself would not survive for long.
• We have our history, sometimes blackened with unworthy deeds and institutions, but holding up for centuries the idea of something better, of a government of, by and for the people, of a nation that sought not only its own welfare but was both a beacon and an agent of liberty for others, too.
• We have our Constitution. Let this Thanksgiving be a day of rededication to its principles, so that we reject those who would set them aside or redefine them into meaninglessness, and offer our wholehearted support to those who stand firm for freedom under law.
• We have our families and friends, our social organizations and charities and houses of worship, those “little platoons” that are intermediaries and defenses against the overwhelming demands of the state.
• And yes, we have our government. Americans created “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” a “new era in the ages,” in which the failed patterns of the old nations we had left were set behind us as we created an American Age.
We must not let alien ideologies and misbegotten systems of “equality” that provide only equal misery persuade us to forget what we built here and can have as long as we want it and work for it.
• And we have words to remember and keep safe for future generations: “I have not yet begun to fight!” “We have met the enemy and he is ours!” “Give me liberty or give me death!” “In God we trust.”
And this, reportedly addressed to Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by a woman on the street: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, madam,” Dr. Franklin replied. “If you can keep it.”
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org.