Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Rosh Hashana - It Is Good To Give Thanks

It Is Good To Give Thanks

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Rosh Hashana, 5778

Hodu L’Adonai Ki Tov—It is good to give thanks to Adonai. Today, like many of us, I am filled with a sense of gratitude, and the wonderful feeling of needing to try to express that gratitude. Today, 10 days after the passing through of Hurricane Irma, I’m deeply, overwhelmingly grateful to see each and every one of you here today. I’m thankful that we’re safe. I’m thankful that we’re alive. I’m thankful that I have a home which still stands, and after just a few days without it, I am passionately thankful for air-conditioning. I’m thankful for a refrigerator full of delicious food, and a stove and a microwave with which to prepare it all. I’m thankful for hot showers and cold drinks. Like all of us, I have quite a bit to be thankful for, today and every day.

Isn’t it amazing how quickly, and how dramatically, our measure of abundance and scarcity can shift? There are so many things in this world which I want, so many things which, despite how I know I should feel, I wish I could buy. But, the Tuesday before last, coming home from dinner at a friend’s air-conditioned house, nothing in the world could have seemed as wonderful as turning the corner and seeing the lights back on in our house. As walking in the door, and feeling the cool air once again filling the room. As waking up Monday morning, the day before that, and confirming that not a single window in our house had been broken. That no one I knew had been injured, even in the slightest.

None of these things were really new, obviously. I go through pretty much every day of my life with abundant food, air-conditioning, health, and so on. I just don’t pay them much attention, most of the time. That’s the thing about gratitude — it isn’t actually based strictly on what we have. Studies have long shown that our sense of abundance and gratitude is relative. It’s based almost entirely on our perception of whether we have more or less than those around us. Literally — a person earning $50,000 a year, but living in an impoverished community will most likely report that they have everything they need and more. A person earning $300,000 a year, but living in a community of multimillionaires is likely to feel somewhat deprived. It’s not that that second person is more shallow than the first; it’s just the way that we are built.

If you think about it, logically speaking, everyone here should probably feel that their material needs are completely taken care of, all the time. We should literally want for nothing. Compare the way that we live, almost any one of us, to the life of a medieval king. If you have air conditioning, a comfortable bed, a reliable supply of food, and a bottle of Advil, then you have more comfort than any royalty from 500 years ago could probably dream of. And, if you can stomach it, compare your life to just about anyone living in any underdeveloped region of the globe, today. My own ongoing desire for a newer, nicer car and just one or two more suits, quickly seem pretty silly.

But, medieval kings and Third World citizens aren’t the ones I compare myself to. Like most of us, I compare myself to those I see around me. And, unfortunately, that includes those that I see in television commercials, and in catalogs. I’m surrounded by images, real and manufactured, which are often purposefully designed to make me want more, and therefore to appreciate less what I already have. Like all of us, I have so, so much. And yet, I want so much more.

For a moment — for a fleeting, beautiful moment — the passing through of a less terrible than expected hurricane broke that spell. Hurricane Irma allowed me — made me — appreciate all the things, large and small, which I have. But, if I’m being honest with myself, probably if any of us are being honest with ourselves, sooner rather than later, we’re going to go back to taking all these things for granted. The air-conditioning will just be there. The endless supply of food will just be assumed. Truthfully, it’s already started.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to break the cycle of perceived scarcity, desire, and ingratitude. There are ways to learn to be constantly, consistently grateful for what we already have. But, if we’re going to do so, if we’re going to cling to our sense of gratitude, then we’re going to have to work at it. Not too hard, actually. But, deliberately. It’s not enough to simply want to be more grateful, and less needy. Our psychology, and the world around us, really do conspire to make us want more, and to make us less grateful than we should be. Nature abhors a spiritual vacuum, as well as a physical one, and so if we leave those spaces empty, the need and desire will flow back into them. But, if we make an intentional, deliberate practice out of actively pursuing gratitude, there will be no more spaces left for want. As Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav said, “Gratitude rejoices with her sister Joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.” Filling our lives with gratitude will keep those lesser emotions from finding a foothold in our lives.

That’s the reason why the rabbis of old instructed us to say 100 blessings every day. They understood that the simple, humble blessing is among the most powerful of all spiritual practices. When we offer a blessing before enjoying some simple pleasure in the world, or when we offer a blessing upon encountering something wondrous — even if it’s something small — it can have a profound effect on us. These blessings are not magical incantations. Rather, they are reminders to direct our attention. They force us to stop and pay attention to, and thus to appreciate, what we have. I don’t just pick up an apple and eat it. I pick it up, take a moment to appreciate that I have it to eat, at all, and then eat it. I don’t just see a rainbow, or a beautiful sunset, or a wild animal. I notice them, take a moment — just the briefest of moments— to really notice them, and to try to appreciate them as fully as possible. 100 times a day, which is quite a lot, I can promise you, we try to not take anything for granted, and to instead be fully, actively grateful for it, and for having it in our lives. It turns the world around us from something which is just there, into an endless supply of opportunities for beauty, wonder, and gratitude.

Does this sound good to you? Do you want to give this a shot? Forget about the requirement of 100 of these every day. It’s a beautiful, aspirational goal, but this isn’t a contest. If you want to try to add just a bit of this kind of practice into your life, I’ve made it easy for you. I’ve printed up some business cards, each one with a blessing for something you might encounter in the world. Something beautiful in nature. The sea. There are a few more of them. They’ll be in the lobby after services. Pick one up – just one, please, at least for now. I’m kind of hoping they’ll be pretty in demand. But, pick one up and carry around with you. Try to remember to use it whenever appropriate. See what it does for you, and to you. I’ll keep putting more cards in the lobby, so you can add new ones your collection, if you want to. Or, you can find lists of these blessings online. There is, of course, an app for this, if you prefer. Or, you can make up your own. The point is to start making a concrete, focused effort to find opportunities for wonder and gratitude, rather than opportunities to take things for granted.

Judaism is all but begging us to do this gratitude work. Gratitude lies at the heart of our religion. We’re told to literally begin each day with gratitude — the prayer Modeh Ani, with which we begin most morning services is actually a prayer written with the intention of being said at home. First thing upon waking up, in fact. We open our eyes, and before we say anything else, before we even curse the alarm clock, we say, “Modeh Ani Lifanecha, Melech Chai v’kayam, she’hehezarta bi nishmati b’chemla. Raba emunatecha—I’m thankful before You, ever living God, for kindly returning my soul to me. Great is your trust.” Our first act every day is supposed to be taking a moment to thank God that we have been given another day, at all. To remind ourselves, without the aid of an oncoming hurricane, that it wasn’t guaranteed that we would have this day. That others didn’t, which means that it is a gift not to be wasted, or taken for granted. The Talmud teaches that when the Messiah comes, when history and the world as we know them cease to be, and are replaced with some unimaginable perfection, then all of the prayers which we offer, along with all of the sacrifices from the ancient Temple, will be no more. Except for those of gratitude and Thanksgiving. The world of which we dream is filled with nothing so much as thanks.

I should mention that this is actually good for you, too. Not just spiritually, which I obviously believe. But, psychologically, and even physically, as well. Recent studies have shown that the simple practice of a daily gratitude journal resulted in an average 10% increase in self-reported happiness. Another study showed that people who practice gratitude have marked improvements in the number and depth of their relationships. Studies from the business world show that gratitude can make us a more effective manager, better decision-maker, and can increase productivity. And there are seemingly endless studies which point to clinically significant health benefits which come from a gratitude filled life. Fewer health complaints, a 10% lower reportage of pain, 8% more sleep, 25% increased quality of sleep, lower occurrence and recurrence of depression and depressive symptoms, a marked decrease in blood pressure for patients with hypertension. I can go on and on, but if you just Google “medical benefits of gratitude,” you could spend hours going through the results. Trust me; I did. Let me offer just one more data point for you. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about a longitudinal study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2001 which showed a nearly 7 year increase in life expectancy for participants who reported a greater sense of gratitude in their lives. Seven years. Seven additional years of life which would be better than an ordinary seven years, because we’ll be enjoying them more, because of better sleep, better health, more friends, and so on. I said before that blessings weren’t magical incantations. I might have lied to you.

It may be more important, though, to realize that gratitude will not just make us happier and healthier. It will also make us better people. The ancient philosopher Cicero claimed, “Gratitude is the mother of all virtues.” Gratitude is the source from which all other virtues flow. It’s the basis for just about everything which makes us decent people. And, it seems he was on to something. The 2004 work, The Psychology of Gratitude shows that people who regularly express gratitude are more likely to be forgiving, generous and agreeable, and are less likely to be narcissistic and selfish. Our other good traits are strengthened when we start strengthening our gratitude.

And, that’s the crux of the matter. That’s the most important thing. Praising gratitude just because of the personal benefits we would gain from it would be, pretty much by definition, narcissistic. Unbearably selfish. But, gratitude also changes the way in which we move through this world. By making us more aware of what we have, and of how lucky we are to have it all, gratitude also makes us more aware of, and more sensitive to, those who don’t have what we have. When I take my easy access to food for granted, I don’t have to think about anything other than getting my next bite of food. But, when I stop and consider how lucky I am to have the food, my attention is almost inevitably drawn towards those who don’t have access to food. And shelter. And clothing. And medical care. And education. And freedom. And self-determination. And and and. And, when I force myself, or maybe when I allow myself, to really pay attention to those who don’t have what I have, and to pay close attention to how much I love, and appreciate, what I already do have, that inequity becomes painful, and unbearable. And so, I’m moved to try to help, because not doing so is now too hard. My gratitude for what I have drives me to want it for all others, as well.

Gratitude is an important first step in becoming kinder, more generous people. It’s an important first step in becoming the kind of people who make our world a better place. In becoming the kind of people who bring more light and more love into the world, not more darkness, hatred, and anger. Doesn’t that sound good, right now? Doesn’t that sound like something we need, especially right now? We need it as individuals, and we need it as a community, and we need it as a society. The world desperately needs people who are grateful. And, the world desperately needs people who, through their gratitude, become kinder and more generous. Gratitude may be what redeems us. Gratitude may be what makes us worthy of being redeemed. Deep, even radical gratitude will transform us. And, ultimately, through us, it will transform the world. If it doesn’t, then this is all just self-indulgent navelgazing. If it does move us to action, then it becomes the holiest gift we’ve ever been given, or can give ourselves.

Thousands of years ago, a woman had a baby. And she named him, “Yehuda.” That name comes from the Hebrew word for thanks, Hodu. In English, we pronounce the name, “Yehuda” as, “Judah.” And, from, “Judah” comes the word, “Jew.” We are, quite literally, the thankful people. To be a Jew is to be thankful. To be thankful is to take the first step toward perfecting our world.

Hodu L’adonai Ki Tov. It is, indeed, very good to give thanks to God.

Erev Rosh Hashana - The Broken Bucket

This might be my favorite story in the world. It was a joy to share it on Erev Rosh Hashana!

The Broken Bucket
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Erev Rosh Hashana, 5778

Our story begins with a woman. An old woman. Very old. This woman had built herself a house, in the middle of nowhere, on the top of a hill. She had lived there for a long time — for as long as anyone could remember. It seemed like she had lived up there forever.

It was a strange thing, building a house up on that hill. There was no one around for miles. No one to talk with, no one to be with, no one to help. But, what was really odd about the decision to live up there was that there was no running water. I guess this was before plumbing, and all of those things which make our lives so convenient. And so, since water doesn’t like to run back uphill, there was no easy way for her to have water in her house.

Instead, she had to get it, for herself, by herself, every morning. Every morning, she followed the same routine. She’d walk outside and pick up a long pole. Next to the pole, there were two buckets, each with a loop of rope over the top. She would take the first bucket, and hang it from the left side of the pole. Then, she would take the second bucket, and hang it from the right. Always the same bucket on the same side, in the exact same way. She would rest the pole across her old, but surprisingly strong shoulders, and she would take the narrow, dirt path down the hill, to the stream which ran past its bottom. She would take the pole off her shoulders, gently and carefully take each bucket off the pole, and then, one at a time, dip each bucket in the stream, filling it with cold, clear water. Then, just as carefully, she would place each bucket back on the pole, oh so carefully lift the pole back up, and back onto her shoulders, and turn to make her way back up the path, to her little house at the top of the hill.

But, that right-hand bucket. That right-hand bucket, you see, had a small crack in the bottom of it. And so, as soon as she started walking up the hill, the bucket would start leaking. A steady persistent drip, the bucket running out of water, step-by-step, so that by the time she reached the top of the hill, the bucket would be completely dry. She would put the right-hand bucket back where it had started, and take the left-hand bucket with her, to use throughout the day. Day after day, year after year, the morning unfolded in the exact same way. Left bucket on the pole, right bucket on the pole. Walk down the path, take the buckets off the pole. Fill the buckets, put them back on the pole. Pick up the pole, march back up the hill. Drip drip drip. Right-hand bucket gets put back where it started; left-hand bucket gets used. Every. Single. Day.

The days passed. The months passed. The years passed. Nothing changed. The same routine, every day. Until one morning. One morning, the woman was getting ready for her day, about to head to the front door to pick up her buckets, and her pole, and then down to the stream, when she heard a loud knock at the door. She was more than a bit surprised — no one ever visited her. Ever. She open the front door, looked outside, and saw – nothing. No one was there. She looked around again, wondering if someone was hiding in the woods around the house, and saw no one. She started to turn back into the house, ready to close the door, when she heard a voice call out. “Hey!” She wheeled around and stuck her head back outside the door. No one. “Hey! Down here!” She looked down, and to her great surprise saw the right-hand bucket, the one with the crack in it, sitting on her front porch.

She stared at it for a brief moment before offering a, “um… Yes?” Not really knowing what she expected to happen. But, whatever she might have expected, it probably wasn’t for the bucket to answer back. “Do you know who I am?” It asked her.

“Why, yes. Of course. You’re the bucket from the right hand side of the pole.” She spoke to it as if this was completely normal, even though it very much wasn’t.

“That’s right. I’m the bucket from the right hand side of the pole. And I. Am. Furious.”

“Furious? At what?”

“At you.”

“At me? You’re furious at me? What in heaven’s name for?”

“For mocking me.”

“Mocking you?” She asked in stunned disbelief. “How? What? What do you mean?”

“Every day. Every single day. You put me on that pole, and carry me down to the stream. You fill me with water, just like a bucket should be filled. Just like a bucket wants to be. And then, you carry me back up the hill, as if nothing was wrong. And I fail. Every single time. Because, I’m broken. And you, you won’t fix me. I’m a bucket. I’m meant to carry water. That’s what I do; that’s what I am. That’s what I’m here for. But I can’t be that, and I can’t do that, because I have this crack, this defect. I’m a failure at the one thing I’m meant to do.

“Do you have any idea — any idea, at all — what it’s like for me? What it’s like to go through this life, day after day, knowing that I’m a failure?. Knowing that I’m useless? All I want is to be a bucket — a proper bucket. A good bucket. A useful bucket. It’s not a lot to ask, but you won’t give me even that much. If you had the common decency to spend a few minutes — just a few minutes — repairing me, I’d be fine. I’m so close to being a decent bucket, but you don’t seem to care enough to help. Instead, you carry me back and forth, up and down that hill, day after day. Each and every time, failing at the one thing I’m meant to do. Failing, one drip at a time, one day at a time. What have I ever done to you to deserve this much cruelty?”

The old woman looked down at the bucket, this bucket which had been on her right side, for all these years, with a look on her face which was a mix of sadness and caring. After a long moment, she began to speak. “My good friend. I’m so, so sorry. I had no idea that you felt this way. You’ve been suffering all this time, and you have no idea at all, do you?”

“What you mean? No idea about what?”

“Here. Let me show you.”

She gently picked up the bucket, and carried it over to the top of the path which they both knew so well. “Look down the right side of the path,” she said. “What do you see?”

“Nothing. It’s just the path. The same path we walk, every day.”

“That’s right. That’s what it is. That’s all that it is. Now look at the other side. What do you see there?”

The bucket looked and noticed that the two sides were nothing alike. Looking down from the top of the path, the right-hand side was bare. But the other side, the other side was alive with color. The other side was covered with flowers, thick and lush, showing off every hue you could imagine. It was so alive, so beautiful.

“I planted those flowers, many years ago,” said the old woman. They’re lovely, but they need a lot of care. And, they especially need a lot of water. So when I found you, I knew I had found exactly what I needed. Every morning, I fill you with water. And every morning, as I walk back up this hill, you sprinkle out, so carefully, so precisely, drop by drop, exactly the right amount of water to keep these flowers alive. To keep them flourishing. To keep them beautiful. This path is the most wonderful place in My entire world. And it’s all because of you.

“I’m so sorry that you never knew this. So, so sorry that you thought that you were broken. That you were a failure. You’re not a failure, and you’re not broken — you’re perfect.”

The bucket stood there, stunned into silence. And the old woman looked at it with ancient, wise eyes and said, “What’s amazing is that precisely the thing that you thought made you broken was the exact same thing which made you so powerful. What you thought was your greatest flaw, was exactly what I needed to make our world a more beautiful place. The crack which you thought made you nothing, was exactly what I needed to make our world holy.”