A few days ago, I stumbled across a terrific quote, which I eventually tracked down to a New York Times article in which Rabbi Marc Gellman asserts, “‘I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,’ Gellman said. ‘Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! … Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude.” The quote reminded me (and perhaps was inspired by, who knows?) of the Christian writer Anne Lamott, who is among my favorite writers. Last year she came out with a new book called, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, in which she asserts the same idea.
I happened to be struck by this quote, perhaps it was one of those moments when things come together – maybe Lamott would call it a miracle- because I had that morning had a peculiar conversation with my partner in which I was feeling a little sorry for myself (Not Attractive, I know). We had been talking about the need for people to share personal things in their lives with their friends, in particular, struggles and problems, and when he asked me who besides himself that would be (on the idea that one’s spouse should not be one’s only support -especially since they’re sometimes the problem that requires unloading) I had to admit that I had no idea who that would be.
It’s funny, but I’ve always felt terribly awkward about burdening other people with my problems. Perhaps I would have made an excellent Englishwoman, since I’m quite good at keeping the “stiff upper lip” and “carrying on” most of the time. But I just feel as though it would be wrong for me to bother people with my petty little bullshit. Is it arrogance? I have no dislike of people coming to me with their problems. To the contrary, like most people, I regard a confidence as a positive thing – part of relationship-building. So maybe it is arrogance – as if somehow I’m different and can get along without.
But I don’t think that I am the only person struggling with this. Indeed, I think it’s why so many people have trouble with prayer – and even with religion (as opposed to a nebulous and unstructured “spirituality,” which demands little of us in terms of self-revelation or discipline). Prayer is indeed “help, thanks, wow,” and there is nothing more difficult than to ask for help.
In an interview with NPR about her book, Lamott says, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
There are two levels to not asking for help: there is fear of rejection. What if someone did feel burdened by one’s TMI. On the human level, of course, this is obvious. Who doesn’t occasionally fear being rejected? And being told that you are making yourself too intimate in passing along the more than usual information is pretty scary. Being told that the other person does not want your intimacy.
But people can fear rejection on the divine level as well. The talmudic story of Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as “Acher,” – “the Other,” – is a classic example of this. Although there are several tales of how he became alienated from the community of the sages, it is what happens after that is full of pathos. It is, indeed, terrible. In several places, Elisha is described as being excluded from the possibility of repentance. His student, Meir, begs him to return (to repent and be re-accepted by God for –whatever it was he did), but Elisha tells him that he has heard a heavenly voice which told him, “All may return – except Acher”
And yet this idea is one in every other place foreign to Judaism. No one is truly ever eternally excluded from the possibility of returning to God. Repentance might be very difficult, it might even require one’s death to complete atonement, but it is not impossible. Perhaps what was really so pathetic here is that one can, reading carefully, interpret the passages as meaning either that Elisha wasn’t forbidden to return, but Acher was – in other words, he had to abandon his identity as someone different from everyone else, and allow his community to help him mend, or perhaps even that the only thing standing in his way was himself – that that voice that he thought of as God’s voice was only in his own head, and God would have accepted him back at any time.
Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.
In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding. But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world. But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms. The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king. This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness. The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.
This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.
There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”
The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.” He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient. Rather, we need to remember that everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.
We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else. That tendency to think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.
I’ve always been suspicious of the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” crowd. Generally, the eternally sunny scare me. When do they let it out? Also, what does the good-tripping type do with out-and-out tragedies such as 20 first and second graders killed for showing up to school; the murder of 7 adults who cared for them, one of them the mother of the murder. How do you make lemonade out of that?
That is the only honest response I have. “God, WTF?! Here we are, all of us, most of us, trying the very best we can in life – and where are You?”
Yes, “What The F***!” is a prayer. Sure Psalm 13 says it differently, but the sentiment is the same. The prayer asks God, ‘where are You when I suffer, when the the world’s pain echoes through me like a deafening roar?’
How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, and grief in my heart all day? -Psalm 13:2-3.
When something troubling happens, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I get angry, angry at God. Anger at God is one of the most potent prayers I know. My friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu alluded to this in yesterday’s Rabbis Without Borders blog.
Of course, anger, red hot accusatory anger at God is not the entirety of Psalm 13. It opens with the startling finger-pointing accusation of God’s indifference, but it ends:
I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.
I love this prayer. It allows me the honesty I need for the healthy relationship with God that I crave. Please don’t ask me to hold on to blind goodness and blessing, because then I feel especially lost and scared and angry when real trouble comes. But let me rail about: Murder, bloodshed, hunger, homelessness, parents burying their children, young girls in Pakistan being shot for wanting an education, women in the Congo being raped, and mind-bogglingly re-raped, their bodies part of the battlefield, and more, so much more…
God, if you let me say all that, let me spill my heart’s ache, well, then there is a lot left, and it’s good.
God, I am thankful for the health of my children, the gift of my wife’s love, the appreciation of my students, the feel of the ocean when I swim, the tightening of my skin as it warms in the sun, smiles, laughter, my dog, Matzah’s birthday, and I can go on and on.
I am filled with gratitude. Above all the troubles and trials of being human is a deep thankfulness for all that I have. Sometimes the world is upside down, and the troubles pile over the goodness. Expressing both my frustration and my joy is the only honest way to right the earth’s axis and move forward once again.
So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.
“Just call me on my cell. My house can be difficult to find.”
I hobbled through the alleyways of the thick, cobbled ancient stone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. I found an open seating area. I called.
In moments, an exuberant, petite, head-scarved woman holding a cell phone next to her ear skirted past me.
“Emunah!” I exclaimed.
“You must be Tamara with the red glasses!”
The conversation continued at a rapid pace as we were both curious about the other.
Emunah had made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel forty years ago from Brooklyn. Fourteen children and two husbands later, she now resides inside the walls of the Old City. She is a believer. Her name, Emunah, means faith. She teaches and practices her faith.
When we arrived at her home, she quickly set up chairs outside for the small gathering of four women and one man that enlarged our intimacy. We ate her homemade oatmeal chocolate bars and drank water to refresh ourselves from the middle eastern summer climate.
Emunah reflected about our personal prayer and the power of God’s prayer.
“It is not about what we want. Think about it. What if God wants to pray for us? What would God pray for? Knowing that God loves us. Knowing that God would want the best for us. What would God want for you?”
God’s prayers for me! Perhaps my prayer requests should come from God’s point of view.
“We are all in God’s shadow. We pray because the Holy One of Discernment prays for us.”
As we listened to Emunah’s lessons, the day darkened into a bold night. The illumination from Emunah’s question continues to delight and excite me: What is God praying for me now?
This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses’s request to enter the Promised Land.
23. And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying,
24. O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might?
25. I beg you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon.
26. But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter.
The response by God to Moses is to essentially tell him to stop bothering Him about this. Enough already! Stop bugging Me about this.
Whatever the reason for this lack of response by God or better yet, this dismissive response, I leave to you. What is striking for me is how Rabbi Simlai from the Talmud (Brachot 32a) uses this passage:
R. Simlai expounded: A person should always first recount the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, and then pray. Whence do we know this? From Moses; for it is written, And I besought the Lord at that time, and it goes on, O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven and earth who can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty acts, and afterwards is written, Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land etc.
For Rabbi Simlai, you want to learn how to pray correctly, follow the example of Moses. Begin with praise and only then you can ask God for something. This structure is an integral part of out liturgy. Praising God is required before you can plead your case. Rabbi Simlai does not explain why this should be the case. One can speculate that one has to first recognize Someone greater than yourself before one can focus on one’s own request. The almost absolute Otherness of God may remind you that what you are seeking better be really significant.
Whatever the case may be, Rabbi Simlai chooses the example where the prayer of Moses failed! He had succeeded other times, the Golden Calf, the spies when God almost destroyed the Jewish People. Yet the example to learn how to pray is when prayer is not successful, when the request is not only denied, but dismissed out of hand.
For Rabbi Simlai and adopted by our tradition, there is a necessary structure to prayer. This is the way it must be done. First praise, then request. I assume Rabbi Simlai followed this practice thrice daily, as do I and many. Our prayers are usually genuine and sincere, even if sometimes done without much conscious thought.
But do our prayers work? What do you think Rabbi Simlai might be teaching us about prayer? About Moses whose prayer is rejected? What do we think we are doing when we call out to God?
Prayer is a very personal and private thing. In fact, to be honest to a fault, let me say that public prayer, with other people raising voices and turning the pages in unison, has become very difficult for me the past few years. I prefer the more quite, contemplative pace I can do in my own backyard alone. Appreciate the professional hazard this truth creates for a rabbi who believes both in the power of prayer and in the power of community. However you pray, or if you pray at all, and the above admission not withstanding, by the end of this blog, I’ll be asking you for a PRAYvor.
What’s a PRAYvor? It’s a word I made up for when someone asks me to pray for them. I want to ask you to pray, for me – sure, but more so for some very special people in my life. Scattered across the globe, from the West Coast, where I live, across the continent, and all the way to Israel are some very special people in my life, all facing surgery within the next seven weeks.
נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם.
Be comforted, indeed be comforted, says your God. -Isaiah 40
These are the opening words of this week’s haftorah (the week’s reading from the Prophets). This is first of seven weeks which count from the the fast day of the 9th of Av. (commemorating the destruction of the Temple (to read more about that, click here) to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time period that we start to prepare ourselves for the spiritual work of the High Holidays ( for more on how we prepare, see Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s blogpost from yesterday). One way to prepare is prayer, including prayers for health.
I believe that prayer works in healing the mind and the body.
- On a rational level, I pray like Maimonides, for the wisdom of the doctors and nurses who heal (click here for a download of the English Translation of his Prayer for the Physician).
- On a meditative level, prayer works to calm the mind and the body, so that we can go on to do the healing we need to move toward.
- On the metaphysical level, I believe that prayer can do wonders for the person who prays for another (as empathy grows, spiritual awareness deepens), and, prayer can help in the healing process itself (click here for the now classic double-blind National Institute of Health Study of 1998, or here for a much more recent blogpost on the Huffington Post by Candy Gunther Brown, author of Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, Harvard University Press ).
Some people are natural prayers, or have learned how to move themselves to that deeper place through practice. If that’s you, you know what I’m asking you for, but I know many people who find prayer very difficult. It’s okay, I get it; I’ve been there myself.
I said “pray for me”, and I wouldn’t mind that at all. There is no getting around it, while I have every reason to believe that the special people in my life that are getting ready for surgery will emerge ultimately healthier than before, I’m still anxious. Here’s what I pray when I’m focused on anxiety:
הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם׃
“God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3.
Much more importantly than for myself, I’d like to ask you for a PRAYvor for the special people in my family and beyond, and for the people that you love and care for who could use our prayers of healing. Over the next several weeks, until Rosh Hashanah (this year it begins on the evening of Sunday, September 16), take a moment each day to pray for those in need of healing, whomever, and wherever they are.
Prayer doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Need words to start off with? You could do worse than the meditative opening words of the verse quoted at the top of this post:
“Nachmu, Nachamu – be comforted, indeed be comforted.”
Need a melody? There are many. I love the melody from my buddy at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA, Cantor Mike Stein. He wrote an evocative modern/classic “Refaenu, Heal Us” (click here to listen), or the late, great, Debbie Friedman classic, Mi Shebeirach (click here to listen and watch her on youtube).
However you do it, please do it. If you’ve never been much of a pray-er before, I know it can seem awkward, but despite that, I’m still asking you for this one small PRAYvor.
While I certainly use my iPhone to check my e-mail and make calls, far and away, what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words with Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.
But why? What is it about games that draw people in?
According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweetspot in the interaction between two poles — structure and creativity.
Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly, because there’s no space for imagination.
But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.
One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”
Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.
Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”
What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and…whoosh!”
We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games — they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.
In Judaism, prayer involves those two components — keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored, because it feels boring, or repetitive, or that it’s simply rote recitation.
But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well:
What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed… (in Comins, Making Prayer Real, 146-7)
We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.
By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.
…[p]lay involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment…
In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.
In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.
(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)
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