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.