Two old friends met each other on the street one day. One looked forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” Three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars,” said the first. “That’s a lot of money,” observed his friend. “But you see,” the first man said, “Two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars, free and clear.” “I’m sorry for your losses, but it sounds to me like you’ve also been very blessed.” “You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million from her.” Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?” He responded: “This week . . . nothing!
Most of us don’t have such a skewed perspective, but our lives are covered by a thin film of complacency, one that is easily pierced by true disaster. Watching news of the rescue efforts in the Bahamas the week before last, I heard victim after victim of Hurricane Dorian tell of their harrowing experiences and the heartbreak of losing everything they owned except the clothing on their backs . . . and sometimes not even that. Yet time and again each expressed gratitude for having escaped, for just being alive even though they’d lost all their possessions.
Feeling grateful after living through a major trauma is common. At the moment an individual emerges from a life-or-death situation, reality has a way of scrubbing her perspective clean, scouring away the daily exasperation that means nothing when life itself is at stake. We Jews have a blessing for everything, including one we say after escaping danger: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַגּוֹמֵל לְחַיָּבִים טוֹבוֹת, שֶׁגְּמָלַֽנִי כָּל טוֹב. — “Praised are You, Lord our God, who rules the universe, showing goodness to us beyond our merits, for bestowing favor upon me.”
For most of us, however, moments of extreme peril are thankfully few and far between. In the ordinary rhythm of our days, there so many things, little and big, we take for granted. Have we ever considered that even the minor nuisances of life may actually be blessings in disguise?
A few years ago, an e-mail entitled “I am thankful,” made the rounds on the internet. In part the message went like this:
I am thankful for the mess I have to clean up after a party, because it means that I’ve been surrounded by friends; I’m thankful for a lawn that needs mowing and windows that need cleaning because it means I’ve got a home; I am thankful for the parking spot I find at the far end of the lot, because it means I am capable of walking; I’m thankful for the piles of laundry and ironing, because it means I have clothes to wear; and I am thankful for the alarm that goes off each morning, because it means that I have another day in front of me.
The Talmud teaches that a person should recite one hundred blessings every day, each an expression of gratitude for what is ours (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 43b). This may seem like a daunting task, but I bet if someone asked us to share a hundred complaints about the things that irk us daily, chances are we’d have little trouble doing so!
Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California at Davis and author of the book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, conducted a fascinating study in which he discovered that people who focused on their blessings in life actually improved their health and well-being through gratitude. Even more striking, those who felt blessed were significantly more likely to have helped someone else with a personal problem or offered emotional support. In other words, they utilized the blessings they found in their own lives to help transform the lives of others.
Rabbi Eliyahu Spira, who lived in 17th century Prague, observed once that a worshiper can fulfill his daily prayer obligation just by listening to the leader recite the Amidah and responding “Amen” to each blessing. But there’s one exception: Birkat Hoda’ah, the benediction whose theme is gratitude to God for “the wonders and gifts that accompany us, evening, morning, and noon.” During the repetition of the Amidah there is a separate paragraph the congregation prays silently while the reader continues aloud. Why? Because when it comes to saying thank you, we can’t delegate the task to someone else to do for us. Each and every one of us is required to express our own appreciation of the blessings we receive (Eliyahu Rabbah 127:1).
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to look at the world with new eyes made for wonder and gratitude. A beautiful story is told in the Talmud about the sage Ben Zoma, who thanked God for all the working people of the earth. “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he could eat bread! He plowed, sowed, and reaped. He bound the sheaves, threshed the grained, winnowed the chaff, selected the ears, ground them, sifted the flour, kneaded the dough, and baked it. Only then was he able to eat. But I get up and find that all these things have already been done for me” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a)
Imagine taking 60 seconds a day to think about all the strangers whose names you will never know upon whom you depend, from the fellow who picks up your trash, to the factory worker whose attention to detail keeps your plane from crashing. Are they doing their jobs? Yes. But is that any the less reason to be grateful?
What is the first thing you do when you open your eyes? Do you grab your phone and check who messaged you while you were sleeping? Is it to look at your schedule and think about how hectic and crazy your day will be? Imagine instead if, upon awakening, you said the following simple words, “Thank you God, for restoring me to consciousness” That thought is expressed by Modeh Ani, a one sentence prayer that observant Jews recite in the morning, and found at the beginning of every siddur.
Imagine then getting up to use the bathroom, and thanking God for “fashioning the human body in wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should one of them fail to function by being blocked or opened, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.” Yes, Judaism has a bathroom blessing — but before you chuckle, consider someone who can’t live without dialysis, a person with an ostomy bag, or a friend who’s experienced the agony of kidney stones.
The practice of gratitude requires appreciation of the ordinary: the ability to move, see, hear, have clothing to wear, food to eat, a roof over our heads. We are better, happier, healthier people for expressing our thanks..
Recently I finished a lovely book by John Kralik, entitled A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. At the age of 48 Kralik had reached a dead end: his law practice was in grave financial trouble, and he was about to lose his lease; he was in the middle of a difficult divorce and broke. He had no relationship with his elder son, and his girlfriend had dumped him. He writes, “As that year progressed, there had been days when I was so preoccupied with my problems that I walked into the street without checking for the WALK sign. When a car missed me with a honk of the horn, I wondered whether everything might have worked out better had I been hit. I did not want to die exactly, but I began to think about the peace I could get in a hospital room, recovering from an accident or a heart attack. The responsibilities of my work would no longer intrude. For just a while, the depressing events might slow.”
On a clear and cold New Year’s Day John Kralik went hiking in Angeles National Forest and wound up getting lost. As darkness fell and he began to slip and stumble at the edge of a ravine, he heard a voice: “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.” He writes, “I do not know who spoke to me. I could not explain this voice, or the words it said, which seemed to have no logical relation to the other thoughts in my head.” It was then that he had his epiphany: to find one person to thank each day; one person to whom he would write a note, so that by the end of the year he would have written 365 thank-yous.
When I read this, a light bulb when off in my head. There are times when I find it hard to be grateful. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard. I see pain and misery caused by illness and grief; what’s even harder is when I witness unnecessary hurts inflicted upon people, emotional hurts that could so easily be avoided but for people’s egos, insecurities and jealousies.
Yet I see so much goodness and kindness, too; it just sometimes gets lost in the thick clouds of a gloomy day. And that’s why I decided that in the year ahead, I would follow John Kralik’s example and write one note a day (except on Yom Tov and Shabbat) expressing my gratitude to someone daily. Will I get to every single person I wish to thank? No, but the very fact that I have so many folks to be thankful for is itself a source of gratitude. My goal is to make a copy of each day’s letter and in the process gradually create an inventory of gratitude to peruse come next Rosh Hashanah.
Here’s a a note I sent to the general manager of a local cemetery. I’ve changed the names to protect the privacy of those involved. The man to whom I wrote was kind in helping a family in need: “Dear Jack — Thanks so much for waiving the opening and closing fees for Bob’s burial. You never know Bob, of course, but back in the day when he had more money, he anonymously helped pay for several indigent burials himself. I believe your act of kindness might just be God’s way of repaying Bob for his generosity.”
Let me share with you another note I sent to a member of our congregation. In this case, too, I’ve disguised the identity of the person. “Dear Bill — I know you and I have different perspectives on the direction we should take as a congregation. As strongly as I believe that in my view, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your passion. In an age when committed volunteers don’t grow on trees, I’m grateful for your devotion to our community.
Even in the short time since I’ve started writing these notes, I have found them therapeutic, healing, and very satisfying; I expect you might as well. We live in a world filled with way too much invective, polarization, and anger; a partisan world of carping and complaining in which we’re losing our ability or desire to see good in the people with whom we disagree politically. In a world suffused with the smog of smugness, gratitude is an oxygen mask to keep our souls from shortness of breath.
Life can be a dirty business. There are microscopic particles that infiltrate our pores, causing irritation and inflammation to our skin. Environmental exposure to pollutants leave unhealthy residues on our skins; the germs that we come into contact with from the surfaces we touch can make us or others ill. We know, then, that we must wash to keep our skin clean and healthy. But what is true of our dermis, is also true of our soul. There are spiritual toxins that settle on us, while complacency can leave greasy film on the mindfulness we need to cultivate to live life gratefully.
This morning I offer you a gift . . . It’s the moist towelette with the message you found on your prayer book, on top of my suggestions for soul cleansing. Now, you can use the towelette to wipe your hands next time they get sticky, but I’m hoping you’ll put it in a place where you’ll occasionally see it, so that when you do, you will go out of your way to stop, and feel thankful for the ordinary miracles of being, or remember to express thanks to someone that you wouldn’t have reached out to otherwise.
To be Jewish is to give thanks – literally. The etymology of the word “Jew” stems from the root odeh, which forms the basis of the name our matriarch gave to her fourth son, Judah: “Ha-pa’am odeh – this time I will give thanks to God” (Genesis 29:35). From Judah (Yehudah) comes the words “Jew” (Yehudi) and “Judaism.”
Gratitude is foundational to human existence because it requires us to develop a deeper awareness of everything we experience. Gratitude is liberating because the appreciation of the gifts that are ours frees us in the moment from past regrets and future anxieties; it releases us from envy over what we don’t have and what we are not. Gratitude is transformative because it can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend, an adversary into a blessing. For the arrogant, gratitude is a reminder that all of us receive far more good than we deserve; for those plagued by self-doubt, gratitude is a reminder that we are precious in God’s eyes and truly do matter. The paradox of gratitude is that it will help us better accept a blemished and imperfect world filled with blemished and imperfect people; but through its practice the world and its people will be that much better and worthy of God’s blessings and miracles that surround us noon, night and day.
Below you’ll find the sheet I distributed throughout the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah — actually, it was the maintenance staff who placed a sheet on each chair, for which I thank them!
THE SOUL CLEANSING POWER OF GRATITUDE
ROSH HASHANAH 5780 – RESOURCE SHEET
1. Judaism offers a treasure trove of resources to express gratitude. Here are just a few of the many, many expressions of thanks (berakhot) found in our liturgy:
Upon awakening in the morning:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ.
I am grateful to You, living and enduring Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. Great is your faithfulness!
When hearing good news:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe,
the Source of good and the Doer of good.
Upon returning to a place where something miraculous happened to you:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִי נֵס בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe,
for performing a miracle on my behalf in this place,
When seeing a wonder of nature such as a shooting star, high mountains, vast deserts, or a spectacular sunrise or sunset:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe, renewing the work of creation.
2. Write a brief thank-you no fewer than several times a week for a year. Don’t count the obligatory thank-you notes we politely write in response to material gifts. Send your brief expressions of gratitude to people whose deeds, words or attitudes you appreciate, whether they have been directly beneficial to you or to others. These notes need not be more than a few quick sentences.
3. Keep a gratitude journal for a period of time in which you daily remind yourself of the gifts and benefits you enjoy. Be specific about the things for which you are grateful. “I’m grateful for my spouse” is superficial – think about something concrete s/he did.
4. Think of particularly difficult times you went through in the past . . . then look to see where you are now. When we remember life’s more painful moments and how far we’ve come, we create an explicit contract in our mind, which is fertile ground for gratefulness.
5. Be mindful of your breath . . . and be thankful for it! Several times each day slow down and bring attention to your breathing. Notice how your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything . . . continue breathing this way. For each of the next five exhalations, say the word “thank you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how fortunate you are to be alive.
6. Use visual cues around your home by putting appropriate quotations or reminders to be thankful in places where you will see them. Only when something is out of sight is it also out of mind.
7. Set your watch or smartphone to go off at random times of day. When you hear the alarm go off, count your blessings on the spot.
8. Find an accountability partner, a friend or family member with whom you talk at pre-arranged times during the week. Just as individuals seeking to lose weight or exercise regularly are much likelier to stick to a regimen if they do it with someone else, you are more likely to maintain the discipline of identifying and expressing gratitude if you do it with someone else.
9. Avoid ungrateful people. The attitude of those who are cynical and ungrateful can be catching. Negative attitudes are infectious.
10. The words we use create reality. Grateful people tend to use the language of gifts, givers, blessings, fortune, fortunate, abundance. Those lacking in gratitude tend to focus on deprivation, deservingness, regret, lack, need, scarcity, loss. Consider your speech; we can change our mood by what we say to ourselves and others.
11. Even if you aren’t feeling thankful about something, go through the motions. What we do externally can influence our feelings internally. Taking the time to say thank you to someone you’ve never properly thanked — even if you aren’t feeling the “love” at that moment — can move you to a more positive mindset.
12. Be thankful for annoying and frustrating people. Yes, this is INCREDIBLY hard to do. The Dalai Lama often tells his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese government for giving him the opportunity to practice love for his enemies. Those who bother, anger or worry us can make us stronger; they may even teach us how to be more patient and calm. The adversity we experience can lead us to a discovery of new strengths within ourselves that we didn’t know were there . . . and that’s something to be grateful about!