Rabbi Jessica Locketz

Erev Rosh HaShana

Perhaps you have heard this one:

A grandmother and her young grandson are enjoying a day at the beach. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The water is blue and as smooth as glass. All of a sudden a tidal wave appears and sweeps the boy out to sea. The grandmother immediately drops to her knees in the sand and prays. “Please God, I have always been a good person, a good Jew and a loving grandmother; please return my grandson to me!” Just as she finishes her prayer, a huge wave crashes back on the beach, returning the little boy to his grandmother’s side. The grandmother begins to cry and hugs the grandson that she thought she would never see again. She is overcome with emotion. But then she looks once more at her grandson, looks back at the sky and yells, “He had a hat!!!”[1]

It is an amusing story and the punch line is not lost on us. In a funny way, ingratitude is funny. Yet we ask: Wouldn’t a simple ‘thank you’ have been in order?  Shouldn’t the grandmother have been more grateful at the turn of events?  Of course, the joke wouldn’t be quite as humorous if she had been.

But even as we chuckle, we know that gratitude should be high on our list of things to achieve during this next year. Numerous websites, blog posts, newspaper articles and the like guarantee us that if we are more grateful, we will enjoy longer life, greater productivity, and increased happiness.  And the research supports these claims. Study after study has shown this to be true. A leading expert on gratitude has concluded that: “…the evidence that cultivating gratitude is good for you is overwhelming.”

And convincing. An entire industry has sprung up around gratitude, our expressed need to achieve it, and the fact that as it turns out, most of us are not actually very good at it.

The tale with which I began and others like it lead me to believe that the words ‘thank you’ are two of the hardest words to say, let alone with sincerity. Even though they are among the first words we are taught to use correctly as young children, as we grow older, we either forget to say them (intentionally or inadvertently) or we do say them and they ring hollow.

Consider this: Rabbi Berel Wein was once driving with the great rabbinical scholar Rabbi Jacob Kamenetzky. When the two men had to wait a long time at a tollbooth, Wein grew exasperated. Finally, when he arrived at the booth, Wein handed the toll collector the money and drove on. The European-born Rabbi Kamenetzky reproved him, “You didn’t say ‘Tenk you.’”[2]  We ask: How many times during the past year have we chosen not to say thank you out of frustration or anger? How many times during the past year have we forgotten to say it altogether?

Consider this: A child is waiting in line with his father to buy ice cream. The request is made and the server hands the child the cone he has ordered. He immediately begins to lick the melting ice cream. “What do you say?” asks the father. “Thank you,” mutters the child as he turns away. We ask: how many times during the past year have we uttered the words “thank you” hurriedly, automatically, without feeling? How many times during the past year have we said thank you absentmindedly while our thoughts were elsewhere?

But gratitude is not just a matter of good manners. Gratitude is an attitude; a determination to acknowledge and appreciate all the things —big and small—that make life worth living.

Consider this: Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.[3] We ask: How many times during the past year did we notice and appreciate the beauty of God’s world? How many times during the past year did we feel blessed to bear witness to the unfolding mysteries of the universe?

And consider this: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote:

I know people who would never think of leaving a taxi or restaurant without thanking the driver or waitress, and leaving a generous tip. But they are sometimes far stingier with grateful words to those who do the most to enhance their lives, their spouses, family members, and friends. They suffer from… an inability to express love and gratitude, to thank those dear to them for specific favors and kindnesses[4].

And we ask: How many times during the past year did we let those close to us know how much we value them? How many times during the past year did we convey through words or gestures that we are grateful for those we love?

Gratitude is an attitude; a determination to acknowledge and appreciate all the things —big and small—that make life worth living. Gratitude is an attitude; it can be cultivated. Gratitude is an attitude; but it is also a choice. This Rosh Hashanah I invite you to join me in choosing to be grateful. This Rosh Hashanah I invite you to join me in making this the year that gratitude becomes our attitude.

To begin, gratitude is a Jewish attitude. Saying thank you is in our Jewish DNA; we are meant to be grateful people. It is inherent in our name. We are not called “Hebrews” or “Israelites”, but Jews, Yehudim in Hebrew. We have our biblical ancestor Leah, to thank (literally!) for that. We are told that when Leah gave birth to her fourth child she named him Judah – Yehudah ­- meaning, “I am thankful,”[5] to reflect her gratitude to God for the gift of another son. Thus Judah and we, his descendants, are defined by our obligation to be grateful. Furthermore, our expressions of gratitude are so important that the midrash tells us: “In the future, all sacrifices will be abolished except for the thanksgiving-offering. All prayers will be abolished except for prayers of gratitude.”[6] Gratitude, it seems, is the essence of Jewish existence; we are grateful to God for the blessings our people received throughout the ages and for all the gifts we continue to receive in our own lives as well. It is no wonder that other religions have echoed this sentiment. As a medieval Christian scholar claimed, “if the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, it is enough.”

While preparing for tonight, I admit that I struggled to understand the difference between the words thankfulness and gratitude.  In fact, I wondered if there really is a difference between them. Sure enough, when I looked up the definitions of each, I found they are synonyms, interchangeable, and used to define each other. In essence, they are the same; to be thankful is to be grateful. To be grateful is to be thankful. Yet, I understand the terms in a somewhat nuanced and different way. To me thankfulness is a surface acknowledgement of something good while gratitude is a deeper appreciation for what makes our lives better. To be thankful then, is to actually say ‘thank you’ when on the receiving end of a gift, a gesture, a service, anything that needs immediate acknowledgement in that moment. To be grateful is to see beyond the moment and to realize that life is an accumulation of blessings and gifts; each an opportunity to notice and embrace the good in the world and in our lives.

The distinction between thankfulness and gratitude is more apparent in the Hebrew. Thankfulness is Hoda’ah, to give thanks. Gratitude, hakarat hatov, is translated literally as “recognizing the good.” Gratitude is like ‘turning on a flashlight in a pitch dark room: it lights up what is already there.’[7]  Hakarat hatov then, is the light that shines on our lives and reveals our blessings, illuminating for us the good we often overlook or just don’t see.  In other words, Hakarat hatov helps us recognize how much good we have in our lives, rather than focusing on what we lack.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a part of the human condition, to dwell on what we don’t have. Dennis Prager calls it the Missing Tile Syndrome, describing it in this way:

… imagine [you are] sitting in a room, looking up at a tiled ceiling. And you notice that one tile is missing – just one. What would you concentrate your vision on? What would you look at the most? The answer of course, is the missing tile. Now, that’s fine for ceilings, in fact it’s actually good because we can replace a ceiling’s missing tile and once again have a perfect ceiling. Ceilings, after all, can be perfect. But this doesn’t apply to life. Most of what is missing in our lives, or what we think is missing, cannot be replaced. Unlike a ceiling, life can never be made perfect….[8]

Sound familiar? At times we are all afflicted with the Missing Tile Syndrome—when we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do; when we fall prey to counting our burdens and not our blessings. Remember the punchline? He had a hat!

Hakarat hatov is a reminder to change our focus, to be aware of our many blessings, and to recognize how little we are lacking. As one life coach noted: “Gratitude…makes us feel full, complete; gratitude is the realization that we have everything we need, at least in this moment.” [9] In this context, we can then understand the verse from Pirke Avot, the sayings of our ancestors: “Who is rich – those who rejoice in their own lot.”[10]  Or put another way: “It’s not having what you want: it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

Gratitude is an attitude and the rabbis of old were confident that we could make it ours.

How? By practicing. Their plan? To recite 100 blessings each and every day until it became a natural thing to do. After all, practice makes perfect.

100 blessings…it’s a lot. How did they arrive at that number? One interpretation: Near the end of his life, Moses asks the Jewish people: “What (mah) does God ask of you?” The commentary explains that the word mah can be read as me’ah, meaning 100. Moses teaches that God wants us to recognize the many ways in which we are blessed, to acknowledge the numerous manifestations of God’s goodness in the world. Gratitude is an attitude that takes time. 100 blessings…in case you are wondering – spread out over a typical 16 hour day, that’s an average of one blessing said every ten minutes. [11]

The task of counting 100 blessings each and every day can feel overwhelming and seem impossible to accomplish. So much so, that we may not even know where to start… It feels like a chore, a burden, and not the uplifting exercise it is meant to be. This experience has been termed “gratitude fatigue.” [12]

A recent blog post describes it this way:

Often the [gratitude] list goes something like this … I’m grateful for my spouse, my children, my grandchildren, heat, food, car, cat, dog, etc. While all of those people and things are valid on the list, after a few days it starts to sound like just a list … more like a shopping list than a gratitude list. [Each day]… it becomes challenging to add… more things … even though we have thousands of things to add… [13]

Gratitude experts suggest starting small and making sure to be specific. Instead of listing “my dog” on a gratitude list, write “my dog licked my face when I was sad” instead. The real benefit is that the creativity will change how we experience the world.[14]

I have much to be grateful for: a loving spouse who supports me in all that I do, two amazing children who constantly keep me on my toes, long-lasting friendships that have weathered good times and bad ones too, beautiful fall days with leaves crunching under my feet and a slight chill in the air, healthy food and occasionally the time to cook a full meal, a house perfect for my family, mostly good health and energy to make it through long days, the opportunity to learn new things and grow personally and professionally, this close-knit and supportive community, moments of spiritual connection with God and each of you and so on.

Now it’s your turn; you have much to be grateful for too. I invite you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax your hands and place them in your lap. Take a few moments to think of something for which you are grateful this evening. [Pause]

A moment for reflection – was it difficult to think of something? Or did a particular moment or person or action immediately come to mind? Is it something to be shared – perhaps to make up for a missed opportunity to thank someone or show a loved one how much you care?  Can you imagine going home tonight to talk about it or picking up the phone and calling tomorrow to let them know how much you value the gifts they give you? Picture the smiles – theirs and yours – as you give the gift of your gratitude.

This Rosh Hashanah, gratitude is ours.  May tonight be the start of a year of acknowledgement and appreciation of all the things —big and small—that make our lives worth living.

[1] 1 http://www.beingjewish.org/htmlpages/funarchives.html
[2] Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. The Book of Jewish Values, pp. 89-90.
[3]Paul Hawkens in a Commencement Address at the University of Portland, 2009: http://www.up.edu/commencement/default.aspx?cid=9456
[4] Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. The Book of Jewish Values, p. 418.
[5] Genesis 29:35
[6] Vayikra Rabbah 9
[7] 4 Ibid., p. 82
[8] http://www.prageruniversity.com/documents/The-Missing-Tile-Syndrome.pdf
[9] Attitudes of Gratitude, 10th Anniversary Edition: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life, p. 24
[10] Pirke Avot 4.1
[11] http://www.jewishpathways.com/files/100_Blessings_Each_Day.pdf
[12] Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704243904575630541486290052
[13] Retrieved from https://karenpower.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/dont-fall-into-the-gratitude-fatigue-trap/
[14] http://healthland.time.com/2010/11/25/how-feelings-of-gratitude-breed-happiness-and-well-being/