It is Good To Learn Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day, which in American culture usually means time reserved for family and friends, football and shopping.  But at its core, Thanksgiving is about gratitude.  While we should express gratitude every day of the year, we set aside this day to focus on the need to give thanks for what we have and for the kindness that others bestow on us and those dear to us.

Gratitude isn’t intuitive.  Babies don’t start life by sharing what they have; they must be taught by their parents to share.  Even when we become adults, we are challenged to overcome the impulse to protect what we have and block others from taking what we think we might need for ourselves.  Whether its due to our instinct for self-preservation or simply our nature to act in our own interests, it’s true that gratitude is something that must be learned.  It’s an acquired skill.

The Torah underscores this idea when the People of Israel are explicitly told to express gratitude for the bounty of the land and the material blessings they receive when they enter the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham and begin to reap its many tangible blessings.  In fact, they are given a script for what to say when they bring a portion of what they harvest as an offering to God.

How do we cultivate an “attitude of gratitude?”  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics (volume 1), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers numerous specific instructions on how to become a grateful person.  He writes that gratitude is rooted in remembrance, and that therefore we must make a conscious effort to remember the good things that others have done for us and for our loved ones.  As a personal practice, he recommends that we keep a journal of the good things that have been done for us, being careful not to overlook even the smallest gesture.  We can begin to cultivate an attitude of gratitude by being mindful of the times that we have benefited from someone treating us with kindness and consideration.

To Rabbi Telushkin’s comprehensive list, I would add two ideas.  First, when we do something kind or generous for another person, we should never expect anything in return.  This is a virtue expressed in Pirkei Avot, where we are taught not to fulfill a mitzvah in order to receive a reward.  Whether a reward might be forthcoming from God or from a human companion, we should never do something in order to store up good deeds owed to us.

Second, when cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we should look for role models of generosity.  All around us there are people who give of themselves constantly and selflessly out of a genuine desire to help others.  We have all met such people.  Perhaps we have been moved and inspired by their work, and perhaps we have causally overlooked them.  Sometimes they are given notoriety and sometimes they perform their work in anonymity.  We should seek out these people and hold them out as role models of generosity.  Such people will inspire us to give of ourselves.

On this Thanksgiving, I wish you a restful and memorable day.  May it be an occasion to begin (or continue) the practice of being mindful of the acts of generosity that come our way.  May we each do an inventory of the ways we are (and could be) helpful and generous with others.  And may we cultivate an attitude of gratitude that will be with us for a lifetime.

I offer this Thanksgiving kavanah (meditation) by Rabbi Debra.  Perhaps you might read its words at the dinner table, or contemplate them privately.

Tov l’hodot la-Adonai…it is good to give thanks.

To lift our eyes upward.

To hillsides still draped in deep browns and maroons of late autumn,

A rich, fleeting beauty before winter’s snows.


Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To inhale the crisp air Laced with woodsmoke and peat,

To feel welcome warmth as we venture inside,

To sniff the aromas of savory gravies,

of nutmeg and cinnamon, berries and wine.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To be seated at tables with friends and with family,

To join hands and embrace,

To share smiles and stories,

To count all our blessings,

To recall cherished loved ones who no longer sit here,

Grateful for memories and the gift of their lives.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For the land that we live in with its promise of freedom and justice for all.

For the visions we share and the strength that You give us

To work as Your partners To fix what is broken,

To bring healing and hope To those in despair.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For this joyous gathering,

For coming together to praise the Creator,

Extending our hands and raising our voices in chorus as one.

Learning Through Listening

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  There is virtually no end to the impact on our lives of genuine listening.  We tend to see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or sometimes based on small bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part, and that is not conducive to building and sustaining productive relationships.

We all need to engage in reflective listening, a practice that increases our connection to another person with whom we are in conversation by allowing them to finish speaking before replying, by always making eye contact, by putting aside a smartphone or pen, or by replying to what someone is saying rather than starting a new thread by making a new comment.

As I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I realize that none of us living here in America can break the logjam in the Middle East and bring peace to Israeli and Palestinians.  This anguished conflict, nearly a century-long, is deep-seated, and a solution is made elusive by history, by ideologically fragmented societies (both Israeli and Palestinian), and by an absence of courageous and visionary leadership on both sides.  Any solution will require enormous risks for both parties.  Still, we can’t look on helplessly and hopelessly.  What can we do?

As a first step, people can engage in reflective listening.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts because we want to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But the Palestinians need to listen to our narrative, our story of connection to the Land of Israel, and we need to listen to theirs.  Listening does not obligate either side to accept every element of the other’s story.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.

Lest you think that this idea is naïve, there is an organization called Encounter, that brings people together to listen.  As they describe their mission, Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They say, “We enable deeply committed Jewish influencers to encounter firsthand the people, perspectives and challenges at the heart of the conflict. Our programs inspire new perspectives, new conversations and new approaches to the conflict.”

I was on a one-day Encounter in Bethlehem several years ago and felt it was a very thoughtfully constructed and productive experience.  Jews spent time listening to Palestinians share their perspectives on the condition of their lives and the conflict.  I did not agree with everything I heard.  At times I thought that the person speaking was mired in their own version of reality.  I expressed my views in a polite and respectful manner when it was my turn to speak.  The idea of an open and honest dialogue was refreshing and welcome.

My wife Amy was on a 4-day Encounter last year with a group of Jewish leaders, including Melanie Gorelick.  Melanie is the Senior Vice President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and for a decade was the Director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  The 4-day Encounter is, of course, a much more extensive and thorough experience, providing for many reflections and impressions.

I invite you to Oheb Shalom this Friday evening when Amy and Melanie will talk about their visit to the West Bank. I want to stress that their talk is not about finding a political solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, nor is it about urging us to take sides. It’s about the crucial importance of learning through listening.

Our service begins at 8:00 PM and the discussion and Q & A led by Amy and Melanie will begin at 8:30 PM. All are welcome, and I hope you will join us.

What’s Next After Pittsburgh?

It’s been nearly a week since a hate-filled anti-Semite entered Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a peaceful Shabbat morning and murdered 11 innocent souls who had gathered there to pray.  So many of us are still reeling from the shock and horror of the killings, from the unabashed, flagrant and virulent anti-Semitism, from the violation of sacred space.  We’ve reflected on the lives of the victims and shared stories of their goodness and their humanity.  We’ve sought comfort in each other’s presence and stood together to reject hatred.

What’s next?  How do we ensure that this massacre doesn’t fade into the recesses of memory, blurring together with other senseless, tragic and hate-filled mass killings?

There are certain moments in life that appear as a watershed, becoming the singular point when we decide to change our attitude and behavior.  Such moments are either times of triumph or times of tragedy, and they inspire us to enlarge our thinking on how we live our lives and take on new commitments that hold out hope for making a difference in the world.

This is such a moment.  The unfathomable tragedy of the murder of 11 Jews praying in a synagogue on Shabbat morning must motivate us to combat hate, to stem the growing and dangerous tide of gun violence in this country, and to reject the ways that human beings are demeaned and subjugated: anti-Semitism…racism…homophobia…Islamophobia.  Now, and not some other time in the hazy future.  Find an organization that seeks to obliterate those scourges in our society and help them with their work.

The murder of the Pittsburgh 11 must also prompt us to embrace goodness and decency.  When something is wrong in this world, when someone flings hatred at others, when someone takes a life or demeans another human being, our response must be to restore the goodness of the world.  That is the essence of the Jewish value of Tikun Olam- repairing of the world.  When the world’s goodness is tainted and compromised, we perform healing acts that renew that goodness and replenish our hope and confidence in humanity.

What should we do in the aftermath of last week’s killings in Pittsburgh?  Go out and do something good for a person in need, lend your time to a community that is wanting, help to feed the hungry or provide warm clothing for those who don’t know how they will protect themselves from the cold of winter.  Let this ugly, disheartening moment be the one that prompts us to redouble our efforts to bring an extra measure of goodness into the world.

One more thing:  What should Jews do in response to a graphic act of anti-Semitism, an assault on our people?  Two responses are called for.  First, we must continue to combat anti-Semitism with all our strength.  We must call out anti-Semitic acts when and where see them, report them to the authorities, and be unafraid to confront this terrible form of hatred.  Anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in this country, as they are in Europe.  In one sense, there is nothing new about that statistic.  Jews have always been the target of haters, the intended victims of those who wish to find a scapegoat for whatever ails them.  We cannot become complacent or apathetic.  Anti-Semites should face the consequences of their hateful actions.

Beyond that, hatred of Jews must prompt us to re-energize our commitment to Judaism.  How do you respond to an act of anti-Semitism?  By reaffirming the importance, the beauty and the worth of living a Jewish life, and by ensuring that the Jewish future is vibrant and filled with hope.  That won’t happen with proclamations or vigils.  It will happen if more of us find our place along the spectrum of organized Jewish life and play a role in growing and strengthening the Jewish people around the world.

On that note, I urge you to Show Up For Shabbat, in particular this week.  Let synagogues everywhere be filled to capacity with people coming together to pray, to bless, to express joy and to give thanks for our heritage.

Here at Oheb Shalom, our Friday night service begins at 6:30 PM, during which we will share a memorial tribute to the 11 people who were killed last Shabbat morning.  Our Shabbat morning service begins at 9:45 AM, during which we will pray about tragedy and finding the strength to recover from it.  I hope to see you!