Friday, May 11, 2012

What have the British ever done for us?

There is a great scene in 'The Life of Brian' (don't watch the whole movie - not tzanuah in one scene) were they are discussing "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

Without wishing to minimize the comedy of that scene, or the seriousness of the gemara, I am reminded of this scene every time I learn the gemara about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi (Shabbat 33b)

Now, why is he [R. Judah son of R. Ila'i] called the first speaker on all occasions? — For R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people [the Romans]! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.' Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Simeon, who censured, let him be executed.

On Lag ba-Omer I heard a certain Rav gave a short d'var Torah, in which he said (amongst other things) that in the time of the British Mandate some people wanted to show hakarat hatov to the British for everything they had done in this country - roads, cities, post offices etc.

The Rav (who will remain unnamed) claimed that when Rav Kook was asked to thank the British after the Balfour declaration he refused to show hakarat hatov, and instead blessed the British that they should merit to be partners in the true redemption. Apparently Rav Kook held that the British were only acting for their own itnerests, and therefore there was no requirement to show gratitude, because they were not doing anything for the Jewish people.

As I said (quietly) to my daughter at the time "that's not right!" I don't know what Rav Kook said, but I firmly believe that there is an obligation of hakarat hatov even if that tov is done for alterier motives. Furthermore, both the first and second Batei haMikdash (plus the attempt to build the third Beit HaMikdash in the time of Julian) were all funded by non-Jews who were probably acting mainly for their own personal interests. Yet we show gratitude to both Hiram and Koresh (Cyrus) - and presumably would have to Julian had he not died soon after the attempt failed)

Furthermore, even though the British never carried through in their promises regarding the Jewish homeland, I think it is fair to say that there would never have been a Jewish state in Israel were it not for the Balfour declaration. And there would be almost no Jews left in the world were it not for the British (and commonwealth, and later the Americans) fighting the Nazis and the axis in WWII.

I don't have time now to search for the proper source for Rav Kook, but I did a quick google search, and it seems to me that he didn't even say what he was accused of saying. It looks as though he in fact DID thank the British after the Balfour declaration:

After the Balfour Declaration was passed in 1917, the Jewish leaders held a large celebratory banquet in London, to which they invited lords, dignitaries, and members of Parliament. Speech after speech by Jewish communal and Zionist leaders thanked the British for their historic act. When Rav Kook was given the honor of speaking, he announced:

"I have come not only to thank the British nation, but even more, to congratulate it for the privilege of making this declaration. The Jewish nation is the 'scholar' among the nations, the 'people of the Book,' a nation of prophets; and it is a great honor for any nation to aid it. I bless the British nation for having extended such honorable aid to the people of the Torah, so that they may return to their land and renew their homeland."

If that is a correct quote from him, then the Rav I heard actually distorted the words of Rav Kook in order to teach the message that we should not have hakarat hatov. If someone finds the real quote from Rav Kook please let me know so that I can check what he ACTUALLY said.

I know I am biased, because I am a big fan of the British monarchy (blame my mother and grandmother for that), but I think even Israelis should have hakarat hatov for everything they have done (as well as the British governments of the past century). If nothing else, I think that British people are able to accept the concept of G-d as King much more than Americans who only have a President.

Having said that, sometimes the members of the Royal Family do not exactly act in a way that is representative of G-d or majesty. But I love them for that too.

If for nothing else, we should be grateful that the British Monarchy gave us the Prince of Wales who has a fantastic accent, and a sense of humour (he seems to have become so much more human since he married his childhood sweetheart).

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