When I was still preaching, my favorite season of preaching was the Thanksgiving through Christmas seasons. I feel it is important to meditate on gratitude and providence during this season. I would like to spend the next four weeks looking at four perspectives of gratitude from the Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions. This week, we will look at the Jewish perspective of gratitude.
Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice
As a practice, gratitude enhances our satisfaction, our contentment with the world around us and counters greed and entitlement. I often think about the notion of enough, though in our society now, there is a lot around the idea of being enough. From a mindfulness/contemplative perspective, enoughness is a state of being and awareness of God’s providence in our lives. Coming from a place early in my young adult life where financially everything was taken away from my family and myself, there were times when we were in the red more often than we were in the black, and even though, we always had enough.
There are many ways of giving thanks. From the Jewish perspective, I stumbled upon Maimonides. For context, Maimonides was a Sephardic Jewish scholar who lived from 1134 to 1204 CE. Maimonides states that blessings fall into three categories:
- Blessing recited when fulfilling religious duties
- Blessings recited when fulfilling religious duties
- Blessings of thanksgiving, which have the character of praise.
This last category intrigues me. There is a lot to unpack here. A blessing of thanksgiving that has character. To have character implies personality or nature, furthermore, it is a state of being. The state of being of praise is an attitude of thanksgiving, or in the cliché, gratitude. We must cultivate an attitude of gratitude. The spiritual practice of gratitude is a way of life.
A few years ago, I was able to do some formal training in mindfulness practice. One of the practices I inadvertently stumbled on was being more mindful of my gratitude as a spiritual practice. It was a Friday night after a long day, and I was grumpy. I go grocery shopping after work and while shopping, a small child ran in front of my cart. His parents were quite upset and reprimanded that child. In a moment of clarity, I stepped out of my grumpiness and was filled with a sense of gratitude for the energy and playfulness of this young man. I turned to the parents and offered a “no worries” and like any parent who has been there, done that, I encouraged them to enjoy these small stressful moments as he will grow up too soon. An offering of blessings and we were on our way. I have replicated this practice over and over since and have found myself with a large capacity for gratitude, even when things are not going as planned.
In Judaism, there is a tendency to see the glass half full, showing that despite setbacks, if we connect the dots, it will lead us to the path of gratitude. I always will say a problem is only a problem when you make it a problem. We rarely can control the circumstances of our being; however, we can respond to our reaction to the circumstances presented to us. I was listening to a podcast this afternoon and the presenter was talking about behavioral change. He said that for change to occur, we need to take responsibility for ourselves. So what if you had a setback, maybe it is time for a new beginning.
Michal Fox Smart of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality offers this sentiment, “When we speak gratitude, it is not only strengthened, but it becomes physically real.” This is important because speech is an act of creation. Gratitude is an action, “a wave that enters our bodies as we hear our own voices” according to Smart.
Two Jewish Terms of Gratitude
I found these two terms of gratitude from my research this week and that offer us a practice for cultivating gratitude:
Yasher Koach – may your power be focused – this can be a term of congratulations, say after a promotion.
Tizkeh Lemitzvos – used to thank one for an act of kindness.
If we go back to Smart’s idea of speech, we can reflect on the power that speech has when we put certain words out into the world. If we speak gratitude, then gratitude becomes our state of being. There is some truth to this, that as we offer gratefulness, we become grateful as a response. When you live charged with gratitude, you will give thanks for anything or anyone who has benefited you, whether they meant to or not.
A Jewish Prayer of Thanksgiving – Bikat Hagomel
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness.
After the recitation of this blessing, the congregation responds:
Mi she-g’malcha kol tov, hu yi-g’malcha kol tov selah.
May he who rewarded you with all goodness reward you with all goodness for ever.