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A Look Into the Future at Gratitude

A Look Into the Future at Gratitude

Dictionary entry for grateful

Occasionally, you meet someone who changes your life. For me, actor and director Harold Ramis was such a person.

I watched him in comedies throughout my childhood: “Animal House,” “Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Groundhog Day.” I watched them so often that to this day, I can still quote lines from each one. Those movies are part of my DNA. They helped shape who I am and what makes me laugh.  

When I first arrived at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, I would see him around town – at Starbucks, on the basketball court watching our kids play, eating lunch at Country Kitchen. We spoke often about religion, Judaism, and the behavior of kids during Shabbat services. One day, I picked up the phone and invited Harold to speak at the congregation. He gladly accepted and from that moment on, I kept his number and email, and remained in touch. 

The last time he spoke at our congregation was during the community Thanksgiving service in 2006. Today, 11 years later, his words are more poignant than ever:

Thanksgiving is always an interesting and exciting time of year for me because it falls so close to my birthday, which was yesterday, the twenty-first, and so brings together two ideas – the ideas of growth and gratitude. At 62, I look back on my life and I see so much to be thankful for—

Harold then thanked his family for their influence on him before he continued:  

And then there’s my work, almost 40 years of writing, performing, and directing, some of it successful, some of it not so successful, but all of it meaningful and important to me. On the great balance sheet, on my permanent record, in the heavenly Book of Life, I know I will be counted among the lucky. And you need only watch a little bit of CNN to know just how lucky most of us are.

Even though he achieved enormous success, Harold always knew – and acknowledged – just how lucky he was.  

And then, in a moment I will never forget, Harold Ramis turned his Glencoe Thanksgiving speech – much to the congregation’s delight – in an entirely unexpected direction:

When Rabbi Lowenstein asked me to speak here tonight, I wondered what could I say to you that you couldn’t read in six or eight badly rhymed lines on a Hallmark card.  And I decided that rather than elaborate on the things I’m already grateful for, I would try to articulate some of the things that I’d like to be grateful for – maybe not this year, or the next, but sometime soon.  So, here’s my random list in no particular order:

I’d like to be grateful for an end to violence and a lasting peace in the Middle East that not only recognizes Israel’s right to exist, but acknowledges its miraculous social, agricultural, and technological achievements – and at the same time recognizes the humanity of the Palestinians and their right to form a viable state and bring the blessings of development to a dispossessed and suffering people.

I’d like to be grateful for an end to global warming and the destruction of the physical environment – for a scientific and technological effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program that taps the best minds in the world for solutions, and then implements them with the full support and commitment of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations.

I’d like to be grateful for a foreign policy driven not just by our strategic interests, but by a real commitment and adherence to the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights (you can read it on the UN web site if you don’t know what it is), for an end to the exploitation of children, the subjugation and abuse of women, to brutal ethnic cleansings, terroristic civil wars, and horrific genocides like Rwanda and Darfur.

I’d like to be grateful for the eradication of AIDS and HIV, for a medical Marshall Plan that makes education, medication, and treatment available to people all over the developing world.

And closer to home, I’d like to be grateful for a comprehensive health care system that covers every man, woman, and child in the United States regardless of income, employment, or citizenship. I know Communism didn’t work, but I once got the flu in Sofia, Bulgaria and a doctor made a house call for free and charged me 16 cents for medication. And no one asked my nationality. I guess I can dream.

And I’d like to be grateful for a system of public education that provides for all children what my kids have in our incredible school district.

And I’d like to be grateful for one more hit movie and for the Cubs winning the World Series.

And I’d like to see all this in my lifetime so my children can enjoy this better world in theirs.

And one last thing: I’d like to be grateful for a spirit of activism and personal responsibility that makes us all realize that positive change on a global scale starts with the things every one of us can do in our own families and communities. Today Glencoe, tomorrow the world.  As the Buddhists say, we owe infinite gratitude to the past, infinite service to the present, and infinite responsibility to the future. Thank you and may God, whatever you understand that to mean, bless you.

I have kept these words as a tribute to Harold and – most of all – as a reminder of what I hope we can accomplish as individuals and as a community.

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein, the senior rabbi of Am Shalom Congregation in Glencoe, IL, is the author of For the Love of Being Jewish and For the Love of Israel.

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