It hasn’t taken this pandemic to make me feel grateful. Maybe it goes back to my childhood when my parents — probably like the parents of many of you — made sure that I said “thank you” to people who did something for me. I seem to recall that, at a certain age, I grew resentful of having to be reminded. Thankfully, I grew out of that, and it became natural for me to do that gladly and sincerely. As it turned out, I learned that being Jewish is built on a foundation of showing our gratitude. You don’t have to be a scholar or a regular at services to say thanks, but that’s where the foundation is established. And it can be something that we can do that is both sacred and ordinary.
The first building block in the foundation is found in the Talmud, and it’s based on — of all things — a pun: “It is taught in a baraita [a teaching outside the normative text of the Mishnah] that Rabbi Meir would say: ‘A person is obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day, as it is stated in the verse: “And now, Israel, what [mah] does the Eternal your God require of you” (Deuteronomy [10:12]). Rabbi Meir interprets the verse as though it said one hundred [mei-ah], rather than mah.’” (Menachot 42b)
So, a pun by a famous, well-respected rabbi is still an inspiration for observant Jews and is featured on aish.com and chabad.org, among others. One hundred blessings may seem to be an imposing amount, and it may be easier for an observant Jew to do than for one who is not so observant.
But even if you can’t imagine coming up with that many in one day, or you just don’t know one hundred blessings, consider this: a blessing is an acknowledgment — an active acknowledgment — that you are thankful. This is the second building block. Think about how many times during your average day that you actually thank someone, feel fortunate, say “Wow!,” show your appreciation, or take note of how you have benefited from God’s help or another human being’s love. Whether you can get to one hundred or not is not really the point; it’s about consciously recognizing the good and the loving and the positive in your life. And when you do that, you are behaving in a sacred way.
The third building block is that gratitude is right there in our prayers recited in the synagogue (or on Zoom these days). It’s in a prayer called the Hodaah (a.k.a. the Modim), and it appears as the eighteenth of the nineteen daily blessings in the Tfilah/Amidah section of our liturgy and as the sixth of seven Shabbat blessings in the same section. It strikes me that expressing our gratitude is so important that the Rabbis decided we just shouldn’t take a day off from it. As you would expect, it’s directed toward God Who is thanked for always being there for us and for being our Protector, for being kind and compassionate, and — to me this is the most important — for all the miracles that are around us. For me, a “miracle” is, by definition, something great that makes our life better. If you can acknowledge that something great or someone great happens for you every day, then showing your gratitude is the ordinary, the natural behavior for you. Being appreciative of every day you have on an everyday basis is the ultimate in gratitude.
As I have grown older, gratitude has become more and more a part of the foundation of my life. This is the fourth and strongest building block for me. Every morning, I express my gratitude for waking up and being able to function as well as I can, even with some physical limitations. Every night, I express my gratitude for having spent another day on Earth the quality of which does not have to be measured by how much money I made or how famous I am or am not. I am grateful for the love of my wife and children, my brother and sister-in-law, my extended family and my many friends. I am grateful to be able to get out of our apartment just to go for a walk, and to be able to appreciate the beauty of Nature where we live. I am grateful for the physicians and nurses, police officers and firefighters, EMTs and funeral directors, teachers and grocers, the scientists trying to deal with this pandemic, a governor making fact-based decisions, and the county and state and national politicians fighting for our welfare. I am grateful for the “virtual communities” that I enter and that I create, and for my students and attendees hearing me say that our sense of community isn’t virtual but is very real. I am grateful that this pandemic didn’t occur in the midst of a horrific winter and that a majority of Americans have a long-term view about taking it slowly so that we actually have a long-term future.
A popular and accurate phrase that we keep hearing these days is “we’re all in this together.” I am grateful not to be alone in dealing with this physical, medical, societal and psychological challenge. My mom and dad would be proud to know that showing and expressing gratitude has for a long time been a sacred act and the natural and ordinary thing to do as part of the foundation of my life. Whether it’s through one hundred blessings or not, I gladly and sincerely say “thank you.”