Tag Archives: gratitude

Gratitude in response to complacency and despair

7 Aug

 

In our household at the end of a Shabbat meal our family usually sings outloud Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after meals. Our 6-year old daughter has taken it upon herself to lead Shir Haamalot, the opening Psalm (126) in the prayer. If someone else dares to start singing before her, she has a fit because she wants to start. This shows the power of ritual to give us a framework towards an ethical imperative, in this case, expressing gratitude. Does this ritual guarantee our children always express gratitude at the appropriate times? No. Sometimes they need gentle reminders; however, ritual helps.

 

The Jewish practice of reciting grace after meals is rooted in a verse in this morning’s Torah portion. In fact, this same verse is the centerpiece of the liturgical text of Birkat HaMazon The verse reads:

וְאָֽכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל־הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

When you have eaten and you are satisfied, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you (Deut. 8:10).

 

The Torah goes on to explain two verses later, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִֽיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים

“[B]eware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (14). The Sages later enacted the practice that we recite blessings before we partake of food since everything belongs to God, and we seek permission from the owner, as it were, before making use of it. However the Sages also remind us that the grace after meals is Biblically mandated. The Torah itself in its own explanation acknowledges that in moments of satisfaction, it is easy to forget the ultimate source of all goodness. Therefore, when we finish eating, before we run to do something else, our tradition bids us to say Birkat HaMazon.

 

The Torah reminds us that gratitude helps us guard against complacency and indifference to the world around us when we are blessed with plenty. Last week, I discussed the two recent cases of horrific violence  in Israel: a Haredi Jew stabbed six people at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, one of whom died; and one or more members of an extremist Jewish terror cell firebombed a Palestinian home, killing an 18-month-old boy. One has to wonder how the criminals who carried out these blasphemous acts could be so blinded by hate that they failed to imbibe the basic value of gratitude for the blessings of living in a free Jewish state.

 

Israel and the Jewish community must engage in deep contemplation over these acts of violence to ensure that we do not tolerate a culture of hatred and incitement that led to these acts.  Even in this challenging time gratitude is essential. Gratitude helps us avoid total despair when we are down and things are not going our way. The name of our people, Yehudim, grew out of a moment of despair. Leah the matriarch had endured many years of being in the shadow of her sister Rachel, whom Jacob loved. The names of her first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, reflect her great anguish. Yet when her fourth son is born she says Ha-pa’am odeh et hashem, “This time I give thanks to God.” Al ken kar’ah sh’mo Yehudah (Genesis 29:35). Therefore she named him Judah.” When Leah names Judah, it is the first time in the Torah that anyone thanks God with the verb lehodot, to thank, related to todah. It is Yehudah, Judah, who goes on to become a leader among his brothers. It is his name that lives on in our people today. In this spirit, we should be grateful that the Jewish community across the board in Israel and around the world has been so outspoken against acts of violence committed in the name of Judaism.

 

My own angst about this particular moment in Jewish history was assuaged to some extent when I read a brilliant poem by Chanie Gorkin, an 11th grader at Beth Rivkah High School in Crown Heights. The poem is titled “Worst Day Ever?” and was posted on PoetryNation.com. Over the last few weeks, it has spread like wildfire on Facebook and social media because it struck such a chord with so many people.
The poem reads:
Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
This world is a pretty evil place.
Even if
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
Because
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure you can agree that
The reality
Creates
My attitude
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,
And see what I really feel about my day.

 

The wisdom of Chanie Gorkin teaches us that even in the face of trouble, we must seek something positive. In the wake of unthinkable violence carried out in Israel in the name of Judaism, we must continue to be grateful for the free and democratic State of Israel and pray and act whenever we can for its well-being. We must never take this gift for granted. We must continue to give thanks to God for the blessing lehiyot am hofshi be’artzenu of being a free people in our own land and work hard as a people to live up to the responsibility that this gift entails. The Torah teaches us to be grateful to God for the blessings in our lives, both to guard against despair during difficult times and to guard against complacency when things are going well. Let me close with a prayer that each one of us will find within us the strength to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives, whatever our present situation. May God hear our thanks and grant us the ultimate gift of Shalom, peace and wholeness.

 

 

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Tapping into gratitude as summer begins

5 Jun
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with her husband, the late David Goldberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with her husband, the late David Goldberg

Another school year is in the books. At this time of year, children exhale a massive sigh of relief as they begin summer vacation. Summer is a wonderful time for relaxation, adventure, travel and renewal. From the perspective of a parent like me, we get a bit of a break from the grueling car pool schedule (the flip side is that by August, we’ll be itching for the kids to get back to school and into a regular routine).

It’s funny that the image of children eagerly leaving school is invoked by one of the major commentators of this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. This portion introduces a profound shift in the tone of the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar. The first ten chapters paint a portrait of order and structure in the camp. In chapter 11, everything starts to unravel, and the rest of the book portrays the tension between the stiff-necked people of Israel and Moses, their increasingly impatient leader.

According to Ramban  (Nachmanides), the transition from order to chaos hinges on a single verse, 10: 33: Vayis’u me’har Hashem derekh shloshet yamim, they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. Ramban says: “They fled the mountain like a child running from school” lest God give them any more commandments or prohibitions. The Israelites couldn’t wait to go on summer vacation from God. They sought a spiritual, emotional and physical distance from Mount Sinai. It’s precisely at this moment that the book of Numbers spirals from order to chaos.

A few verses later, chapter 11 opens Vayehi ha’am k’mitonenim ra b’oznei Hashem, the people complained bitterly in the ears of God. At first, we’re not even told what they were complaining about—just that they were complaining. Only a few verses later the Israelites wept and said mi yaachileinu basar? “Who’s going to feed us meat?” No wonder God was holding His ears, as it were—the people were complaining about God’s cooking—the miraculous manah that rained down every day was not good enough for the people. They were sick of Tofu-like imitation meat; they demanded the real thing. And so it goes throughout the rest of the book: complaints and challenges to authority. They depart Mt. Sinai, and rather than have a peaceful summer vacation at a desert oasis, all Hell breaks loose. It is remarkable how quickly the people have forgotten the Exodus from Egypt and their salvation from God.

A lesson from Bemidbar is that when we lose our sense of gratitude for life’s greatest gifts, our world turns into disarray. Ironically, all too often it is people who suffer adversity who teach us the greatest lessons of gratitude for what really matters. A case in point is Sheryl Sandberg. Until recently, she might not have been the poster child for adversity. In fact, she is the COO of Facebook and the best-selling author of Lean In, an analysis of women in the workplace in the 21st century. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, was the founder and CEO of Survey Monkey. He was respected in his industry and adored by all who knew him. Then, last month tragedy struck. Dave Goldberg was working out in a gym while on vacation in Mexico. In a freak accident, he suffered a severe head injury and died. Their family had it made. Both husband and wife were captains of industry—the high tech industry. Moreover, they had a beautiful family rooted in Jewish values. They had it made.

One can hardly imagine the emotional toll this tragedy has taken on Sheryl Sandberg. And yet, this week she published a moving and courageous essay on the occasion of the shloshim, the end of the formal thirty days of mourning since her husband’s death. Here are some excerpts :

Sandberg writes:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

Sheryl Sandberg somehow mustered the strength amidst her agony to produce this gem. She taps into her pain to articulate some of life’s most important lessons, and on top of that she grounds her reflections in a Jewish framework. Over the next few weeks, as we encounter once again the wayward Israelites in the desert crying out to God and Moses with their constant complaints, let’s recall Sheryl Sandberg’s counterpoint that we must pause to appreciate the things in life that really matter.

School is over, summer begins. Let this be a summer in which we are mindful of God’s blessings to us.

Happy Summer.

 

Just One More Song

4 Oct
Robin Williams (1951-2014) as "Mork" (circa 1980) and Rabbi Joel Wasser (1963-2014)  on steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987).

Robin Williams (1951-2014) as “Mork” (circa 1980) and Rabbi Joel Wasser (1963-2014) on steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987).

One evening a Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle going on inside him: “My son, it is between two wolves. One is evil: Anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee replied, “The one that I feed.”

We all have similar battles that take place in our minds. Our actions, positive or negative, often result from the wolves we feed–the impulses that come out of these struggles. Sometimes we do great things. Other times we make mistakes but are able to repair them. Once in a while, the human impulse brings about great tragedy.

Several weeks ago, the world was shocked by the untimely passing of actor Robin Williams. Many of us asked how it was possible that a man who brought so much joy and laughter to so many millions of people over many decades would feel so tortured by demons on the inside? When news broke that this comic genius had taken his own life at the age of 63, the world was shocked. Print and electronic media were filled with outpourings of love for Robin Williams as both a performer and a person. His untimely death awakened society to the inner sufferings of people afflicted with the diseases of depression and substance addiction.

A few months earlier, a rabbinic colleague and teacher of mine, Rabbi Joel Wasser, z”l, died. He was only 50, and he took his own life. Like Robin Williams, Rabbi Wasser was a comic genius. I laughed convulsively at his jokes and stories. Moreover, he used his amazing natural gifts and charisma to make Judaism fun and inspiring, particularly for younger Jews. In 1987, he was one of my advisors on USY on Wheels, a cross-country bus tour. I was a high school student, and he was a young rabbinical student. He sat next to me on long bus rides and taught me how to lead services. Beyond the technicalities of how to chant the prayers, he brought me into the liturgy so that it came alive for me. I owe my interest in Jewish text and tradition and my ultimate decision to enter the rabbinate in large measure to my bus rides with Joel. I had lost touch with Joel over the years. However, nearly four years ago, when I was facing a moment of transition in my life, he called me out of the blue to offer his support and encouragement. I will never forget that simple act of kindness.

Rabbi Wasser spent the bulk of his rabbinic career at Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa. I attended his funeral there in May. He had already been away from the community for several years, but the impact that he had on hundreds of people of all ages was palpable. Like Robin Williams, it is a mystery that Rabbi Wasser who brought joy, a sense of purpose and a love of Judaism to so many people could be haunted by inner demons that would lead him to such a tragic demise. Both of these extraordinary men fell victim to the diseases of depression and addiction that cut their lives short when they still had so much left to give.

Hayim Nachman Bialik, the Hebrew Poet Laureate of Israel of the early 20th century prior to Israeli statehood wrote a poem titled Acharei Moti/”After My Death,” that captures the essence of losing dear ones before their time.

AFTER MY DEATH
Say this when you mourn for me:

There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity! There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
forever.

There’s hardly any tragedy as great as losing a loved one to suicide. It’s something that surviving loved ones often never get over. To make matters worse, few losses carry as much stigma and shame for the survivors. And yet, suicide has nothing to do with the moral character of the victims or survivors. According to estimates, some 8,000,000 Americans contemplate suicide each year, resulting in 1,000,000 suicide attempts and nearly 35,000 deaths. Suicides outnumber homicides 2:1. Suicide expert Joanne Harpel notes that suicide is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or an easy way out. It’s a fatal complication of an underlying illness, the same as dying of heart disease or cancer. Harpel adds that when we pray for healing in the Mi-Sheberach prayer, we ask for refuat hanefesh u’rfuat ha-guf, healing of spirit and body. Depression afflicts both, and suicide is the ultimate breakdown of these two systems.

According to Harpel, laypeople cannot diagnose, but with compassion we can encourage those we care about to get professional help. Harpel writes, “When we are worried about someone, we can say, ‘I’m concerned about you. Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ If the answer is yes, we should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.” She suggests that this is a number we should all have in our phone contacts for easy access and give it to loved ones who might be at risk.

Within the Jewish world, We should also know about Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to the Issues of Suicide Awareness and Prevention. It is a non-profit founded in 2009 that has created a vital support network in the Jewish community to raise awareness of this crisis and provide comfort and support to people who are suffering.

When we reflect on beautiful souls like Robin Williams and Rabbi Joel Wasser, we are reminded of life’s mystery and fragility. They were both complex and ironic men who suffered greatly inside even as they brought great joy to others. When I think about them on Yom Kippur, I’m reminded of Yom Kippur’s great irony. Today is both solemn and joyous.

There is no doubt about the great solemnity to this day. We fast; we beat our chests in sorrow over past mis-deeds; we mourn the absence of loved ones during Yizkor. Some may have lived out the fullness of their years, while others may have passed before their time. No matter the circumstances, we are likely to yearn for one more song that they may have had left. We long for their closeness, the laughter they aroused in us, the tears they shed with us. At the same time, Yom Kippur is regarded by the Sages as the most joyful of days. It is the day in which we are cleansed of our sins. We are reminded that while so many tragedies happen that are beyond our control, our destiny is still in our hands. U’teshuvah u’tefillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeira–Repentance, prayer and righteousness lessen the pain we suffer from life’s travails. We have the power to make a difference in the lives of others.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to bring departed loved ones back to life. The music of their lives has stopped. Here’s what we can do: we can deepen the relationships with those near to us now so that nobody feels alone. Use this relationship worksheet as a guide. It asks you to identify people who are close to you and complete the following sentences: Thank you for…; I’m sorry for…; I forgive you for…; and I love you for…. This worksheet may help trigger important conversations in your families and social networks. In turn, we may be able to heal untreated wounds. We may hear songs not yet sung. We may discover pain in others we were not aware of. We may even save lives.

First, say thank you. We can’t say thank you enough to people. When we are in the habit of saying thank you, we cultivate an ongoing feeling of gratitude, the foundation of a happy life. In the prayer book, the first thing we say is Modeh ani lefanecha, Melekh chai vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabbah emunatecha. “I am grateful before You, everlasting Sovereign, who has mercifully restored in me my soul; your faithfulness is great. When we begin our day with words of gratitude to God, we are more likely to feel gratitude and convey that sense to others. Expressing our gratitude towards other people benefits their self-esteem as well as our own.

“I’m sorry for….” I work under the assumption that we are all basically good people. None of us wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Gee, how much can I destroy today?” We go through our day to day lives trying to do the right thing, and we are not perfect. We all make mistakes both by things we do and say and by things we fail to do say. Because each of us is a decent person at heart, it’s hard for us to admit our mistakes. We justify our actions. Our relationships suffer as a result. It takes courage to humble ourselves before another person. One of life’s great ironies is that when we show vulnerability through a genuine apology, we actually gain strength in the eyes of the offended.

“I forgive you for….” A favorite teaching I’ve mine that I’ve quoted before is from the renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski. He writes about patients who are paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.” Forgiveness is as much for our own benefit as the person being forgiven, and it brings tremendous healing.

“I love you for….” In Disney’s animated hit “Frozen,” the Trolls sing in their song “Fixer Upper” “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best.” Reminding our loved ones that we love them and why–and doing so repeatedly–reflects our ultimate commitment to the wellbeing of relationships. Love brings out our best.

With these four simple statements, imagine the healing we can generate. Imagine the renewed joy and laughter when there had once been tears and hurt. Imagine the self-esteem we build up in ourselves and others. Imagine the songs we will hear that we never knew existed. Imagine the lives we might save.

We cannot bring back to life loved ones who died whether by suicide or by other causes. But we can resolve–we must resolve–that they did not die in vain. Yom Kippur gives us space to mourn, but it also calls upon us to grow, change, and redefine ourselves. It is a day to cleanse ourselves of that which is broken and to create and reinforce everlasting bonds of trust, hope and love. Let us listen to and savor one another’s songs before the music stops. So may it be God’s will.