Message from Rabbi Berman
But What Have You Done for me Lately? A Thanksgiving Thought
It hardly seems that the most intense part of the Jewish year, the Yamim Nora’im, “High Holy Days,” ended not so long ago. Part of me says, “Let’s not live in the past, let’s start focusing on the next item on the calendar; Hannukah’s coming up, and I have to decide how to spell it this year.” Another part of me, though, says, “You know, we talked about some pretty important subjects there on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We got into some pretty existential stuff there on Sukkot. Are people actually any more in tune with their spiritual side because of these major holidays? Are they living better lives because they came to shul? Have their reflections led to action? Is what we need to focus on now so different than then?
If the lesson of Sukkot, of living in a fragile booth for a week, is that life is fragile and we should be grateful for what we have—well, are we?
Gratitude is one of the key values taught by our tradition. For example, the first thing a traditional Jew says in the morning is a brief prayer called “Modeh Ani,” thanking God for letting us wake up another day. We also have a prayer said upon being called up to the Torah after completing a long voyage (traditionally a sea voyage or desert trek, nowadays more often a trip involving a flight), recovering from an illness, or being freed from prison. It’s called the Gomel blessing (in Yiddish, benching Gomel. Bench means to bless and we use this term for the Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, as well). The Gomel blessing goes like this:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who is gracious even to those who may not be worthy—You have graciously extended great kindness to me.”
And those who hear this blessing respond:
“May the One Who has graciously extended great kindness to you continue to do so.”
In fact, the entire matrix of blessings available through the Jewish tradition is built around the structure of giving thanks to God for the good things in our world, whether it’s seeing a rainbow or enjoying the taste of bread or wine. Being grateful for what we have is a cornerstone for happiness in this world. As I once heard someone say, “A person who is truly happy enjoys the scenery, even if they have to take a detour.”
But there is even more to it than that. Expressing gratitude is the way to make life's miracles, big and small, more complete. It’s part of our partnership with God. It says in the siddur the world is created each day anew, but the finishing touches of creation are our thanks and praise. The crossing of the Red Sea wasn’t complete without the Song of the Sea, thanking God for splitting it. The miracle of the jug of oil burning eight days is amplified each time we say the blessings over the hannukiah, the menorah.
The very word for Jews in Hebrew, Y’hudim, comes from the word to be grateful, to give thanks: l’hodot. It’s where we get the word for thanks, Todah. It comes straight from Genesis 29:35, where Leah thanks God for Yehudah, her fourth son with Jacob. That’s who we’re named for, thank you very much.
So reflect a moment on the things you’re thankful for. Any time is good for that, and as I said, traditionally the moment to do it is upon waking. Then try the morning prayers with all their blessings of gratitude, and by all means add your own. It’ll make your day measurably better.
Me, I’m grateful you read this far. Have a great Thanksgiving.
See you in shul,