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Happy Thanksgiving 2023. We’re Going to Be OK.

I’m not joking

by
Liel Leibovitz
November 22, 2023

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We’re going to be just fine.

By “we” I mean America. And by “just fine” I actually mean great. Better than ever, really.

If I were making a case for American decline—and, Lord knows, that’s a cottage industry these days—I would have no shortage of stats to choose from. Our government is comprehensively corrupted. Millions of us are numbing ourselves with porn and apps and opioids. Not only have we lost faith in all of the institutions that once stirred our passions and our commitments, but we were right to do so. It’s easier to imagine a second Civil War than another American renaissance.

Except that would be wrong. When I look at America, and when I visit America, and when I talk to Americans, I see a very difficult short-term future followed by a glorious horizon.

I understand that many readers are too shocked to do anything other than stoke their own outrage or wallow in despair. Others are turned off by anything that’s intangible, think only fools get taken by talk of the eternal and the unseen. I respect you, but need you to realize that you would’ve been wrong about America at every other pivotal moment. You would have been wrong about it in, say, 1774. Looking at General Washington’s ragtag army, 80,000 strong at its peak, you might’ve opined that these foundlings hadn’t a chance against His Majesty’s men, more numerous and better trained and heavily armed. In 1859, you might’ve observed reality and sighed that our experiment with unity, such as it was, is kaput. In 1963, you might’ve predicted that a berserk America was off the rails, never again to return to its senses.

If, however, you’re willing to entertain the possibility of optimism, I’m here to explain why it is, in fact, the most rational position to have in this very moment.

Observe the history of every other nation, more or less, and, at some point, the social contract theory creeps in. The idea behind it is simple: Human beings, each an atomized individual, band together and trade away some of their liberties in return for collective security. I will allow the state to collect taxes and set rules, and the state, in turn, will protect me from my neighbor should he rise up to smite me. It’s a fine idea, except, you know, being all wrong: As one famous French philosopher quipped, the social contract theory was composed either by men who had no children or who had forgotten their own childhoods. Because look at a child, any child, and you realize that we’re not merely atomized individuals, unrooted in family or faith or community. And you realize, too, that a contract is terrible precisely because it offers no theory of change and growth: Sign on the dotted line, and you have no choice but to follow the precise same contours for ever and ever.

A covenant is a very different beast. A covenant makes you sign first and then, God willing, grow up and prove yourself worthy of your word. Abraham, the ur-covenanter, strikes his deal with God and is then tested again and again and again until he evolves to become the man God always knew he could be. A covenant is another way of saying, “I believe in you, so please don’t prove me wrong.”

It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew name for the United States is Artzot Ha’Brit, the lands of the covenant. Every century or so, America renews its covenant with its creator, and no renewal looks like another. We entered this covenant first in 1776, proclaiming liberty throughout all the land. We renewed it in 1861, fighting a bitter war to erase the stain of slavery. And in 1964, we rose again to make sure we don’t slide into bigotry and bile. Do the math, and you realize we’re due to have another renewal pretty soon.

What would it look like? There’s no real way of telling, not without risking prophecy’s sweet intoxication that turns prudent people into prattling morons. It would likely be jagged, and maybe even violent. But the renewal itself doesn’t matter much; what counts is what comes next, which, traditionally, is a century or so of American flourishing. Our goodness and our greatness are intertwined; reaffirm one, and the other will follow.

And everywhere I travel in America these days, I see Americans reaffirming goodness. They’re not the hollow collegians, cramped in the airless quarters of their intolerant madrassas, chanting for Hamas. They’re the young fathers in Texas, building a school dedicated to classical Western and Jewish values, fixing much that is broken about the educational system the old fashioned way—by building something new. They’re the moms down in Florida who saw that their girls needed a more wholesome way to spend their afternoons and launched a new youth movement dedicated to community service. They’re the Catholics of the back-to-the-land movement, an agrarian alternative to the profound brokenness of American cities. They’re the young Chabad couples spreading light and faith and Jewish values in every corner of the country. They’re normal Americans who love this country in an uncomplicated way because they believe that it is special, that its specialness is divinely ordained, and that our job as Americans is to repay the privilege of being citizens of this incredible country by making sure our friends and neighbors, too, bask in its warmth and its light.

Pay close attention to American history—and that’s what we do come Thanksgiving, isn’t it?—and you’ll see that the story of giving thanks and spreading light is the American story. It’s the story of D-Day and the moon landing, of Antietam and Valley Forge, of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act. All of the above were extraordinary in the literal sense of the word—they required courage and conviction that ordinary people making ordinary calculations lack. But we’re not ordinary. We’re Americans, covenantal creatures to our core, stuffed, to paraphrase our national poet, with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. We contain multitudes. And we’re going to be just fine.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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