A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).
As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness. Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.
Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else? Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for. It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.
TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.
Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical. Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.
When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.
TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.
B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.
Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.
The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.
When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”
I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.
There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.
Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.
Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful