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
Twenty-five years ago I stood with three classmates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and received the title “rabbi.” After five intense years of rabbinical school, following years of preparatory Jewish study, we had arrived. The emotional and spiritual power of ordination was about achieving a dream, but it also signaled a change in our status that would forever define our identities. As rabbis we would now bear responsibility to care for the Jewish people and repair the world, with a unique status of authority.
This past weekend my classmates and I were joined by three more colleagues, as we were honored with our Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) degrees. As has become custom in much of the American rabbinate we were honored with these degrees by virtue of our worthy service to the Jewish people over these twenty five years.
I have been looking forward to this moment for years. I knew it would joyous — a celebration like a significant birthday or anniversary. Many rabbis joke that the D.D., as we all call it, means “didn’t die.” It is a testament to a rabbi’s survival. Reminiscent of the rude awakening I received when I went to buy disability insurance as a young rabbi. I learned that few insurers (at the time of my career’s beginning — only two) would insure rabbis because clergy have the highest rates of disability from stress related illnesses. I still find that statistic hard to believe based on my observations, but no matter, you get the point. We laugh about celebrating survival because we worry about not surviving. We made it, whew!
But surely, as the year and the date approached for my own D.D., I came to appreciate how important it was to celebrate more than the passage of time. This was an opportunity for reflection on the experiences of these years, with the mistakes and achievements, accomplishments and disappointments. My colleagues and I marveled at the enormity of everything we have experienced and done during this quarter century. Our journeys have tracked a time of tremendous change in American Judaism.
What did we learn during these years? What would we have done differently? One of my colleagues wanted to know if I had to it to do over again, would I still have wanted to be a rabbi? Without any hesitation, I said “yes”. My colleague did not.
Of course, it would take a book to document what I have learned. But the opportunity for reflection helped to surface important lessons. I thought of these as I watched with pride and joy the newly ordained rabbis at the RRC graduation. “Be ready”, I thought. “Everything you know and believe can be challenged in the years ahead.” The world — and notably the Jewish world — is shifting around us in dramatic and unpredictable ways. All of my youthful assumptions about what Jewish life would be like at this time have been challenged, and some have unraveled. The stable Jewish community I envisioned in which synagogue affiliation would be central to Jewish life is now very unstable as affiliation rates drop and synagogues are far from being the only game in town. Knowing how to listen to the world around you — and to your own gut — is essential. It takes experience to acquire the wisdom to do this well.
What does it mean to be Doctor of Divinity? It means to be a rabbi who notices and acts on the presence of God within the most mundane moments of life, elevating the sparks of holiness in our world. It means loving the Jewish people and all peoples with an open heart. And it means being ready for change. It means integrating all that you have learned — the texts of our people, the texts of our culture and the texts of your mistakes and your accomplishments — so that you can be better at what you do, every day. It is, as the Psalmist taught, a chance to “Number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Principles, values, knowledge and fluidity — if I have learned anything in these 25 years of service it is that these must guide us in a path of godliness. This, I believe, is the leadership the Jewish community needs. I am grateful for the privilege to serve.