It is hard to find a parallel for the Fourth of July among any other nation. Some countries celebrate their special day by means of a military parade; others simply have no such day at all. Nobody else marks a national anniversary with such a beguiling mixture of fierce patriotism and innocuous pleasure: picnics in the park with family and friends, patriotic music and fireworks.
Numerous emotions fuel the feelings that people have for their countries. The one emotion that drives Americans more than any other emotion on July 4 is gratitude. Whether at boating raft-ups, at barbecues, at impromptu ball games, at concerts, or at every other typical Independence Day celebration, people’s faces reflect a deep satisfaction at being part of the American fabric. These days, television brings right into one’s home searing and unforgettable pictures that highlight just how insecure, terrifying, and often short life is in so many other parts of the world. In an almost ritualistic way, July 4 fulfills a need to express the gratitude that we all feel.
Gratitude, however, is no more to be merely felt than fireworks are to be merely heard. The full experience is achieved only once we watch the fireworks, and once we actually express gratitude. People today assure one another that expressive anger is healthy. They darkly imply that anger resembles a malevolent blister that, unless relieved by frequent smaller eruptions, will eventually explode uncontrollably to the detriment of everyone.
Nothing could be further from the wisdom of Talmudic teaching, which has been responsible for shaping some of history’s most tranquil and friendly communities. The sages of old argue that the more we restrain ourselves from self-indulgent outbursts of anger, the less frequently we will even come to feel that destructive anger. Conversely, the more we allow ourselves to express anger, the more often we will find ourselves bursting with indignation.
Yet the same people who are most outspoken about how important it is to “let out the anger you feel,” are strangely silent about letting out the gratitude one feels. The reason for this inconsistency is that although it is easy to locate a target for one’s anger, it is a lot harder to know where to aim one’s gratitude.
While one can feel gratitude toward a country, one cannot say “thank you” to a country. To whom exactly should one say, “Thank you?” To the president? Hardly. The question remains, To whom do we express the gratitude that wells up inside each of us, gratitude for being able to live in peace and prosperity in this blessed country?
On the other hand, Why express gratitude? Perhaps just feeling it is enough? No, everybody recognizes that depending upon charity corrodes the soul of the recipient. Receiving a benefit and paying nothing for it is the same as receiving charity. This is why we often write formal “thank-you notes” for gifts or other kindnesses. Expressing gratitude is the closest we can come to paying our way, as it were, and it is enough. This is a powerful argument for associating work with welfare. For humans to receive benefits with no quid pro quo of work, or at the very least, an acknowledgment of gratitude, turns them into charity recipients, and charity recipients often begin to feel resentful of their benefactors.
This is the reason that wise parents train their children always to express gratitude and encourage them to do chores for the family. The child benefits so enormously from all the good done him by his parents that unless he is given an opportunity to “pay his way” he will later come to resent his parents. All humans are sensitive to obligation; wise ones seek a way to discharge it. Which leaves the problem of whom to thank for all the good we feel on July 4?
Judaism teaches that nobody may enjoy any pleasure the world has to offer without first saying a blessing. The root of the Hebrew word for “Jew,” Yehudi, is the Hebrew word for gratitude. No religious child bites into an apple without first saying a blessing. No Orthodox adult marvels at a spectacular rainbow without uttering a blessing of gratitude. The important thing to remember is that this is not to keep God happy. These blessings are expressions of gratitude that enable us to reciprocate the good. They keep us from being charity dependents and allow us to “pay back” Him Who is the source of all good.
Perhaps the reason for Americans’ unique style of Independence Day celebration is that we subconsciously realize that on July 4 we humbly express gratitude to the Almighty Himself for all the benefits of being Americans. We somehow realize that a military parade would suggest that we are taking too much credit ourselves for a country that could not have come into being without the assistance of divine Providence. We realize that not celebrating Independence Day at all would reek of ingratitude.
As an Orthodox rabbi, a Crisis columnist and also an ardent sailor, it is quite impossible for me to speak of both the greatness of America and the subject of gratitude without acknowledging a great American. Wearing my rabbi yarmulka, I express gratitude to William F. Buckley, Jr., for having written one of the finest books ever on anti-Semitism. Wearing my columnist hat, I express gratitude for his having written his startlingly original book on gratitude. Wearing my sailor’s cap, I express gratitude for his having written three of the most exciting and evocative books ever written on sailing. The bookmark in my autographed copy of Airborne is an E-mail Bon Voyage message from Buckley received exactly ten years ago on the eve of departure on my own sailboat voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Since then, he has continued to inspire me with the idea that religion is the appropriate shaper of those principles that inform our politics. Thank you, Bill,
I often wonder whether Mr. Buckley, a religious Catholic, and I, a religious Jew, find the same joy in sailing that derives from a voyage being such a perfect metaphor for life’s journey. From Noah to Jonah there is religious significance to the theme of ocean travel. Jewish tradition records that Noah’s landfall following history’s first voyage, occurred on the seventeenth day of Tamuz in the Jewish calendar. It intrigues me that in the year 1776, the seventeenth of Tamuz corresponded to July 4.