It seemed that this summer we encountered a new phenomenon on Facebook (apologies to those who do not use Facebook). Perhaps we could call it the “summer of the challenge.” In this case I am not referring to the challenging events in Israel but to ongoing activity on Facebook. Two challenges in particular seemed to draw a great deal of attention. The first was the ALS challenge and the second was the gratitude challenge. (I have also seen the Favorite Books and the Mitzvah challenges.)
To those of you who are not aware of these let me try to describe them as I see it. The ALS challenge was known as the ice bucket challenge. A person was challenged to respond within 2 days by taking a video of having ice water dumped upon their head. If they chose not to comply they were to make a $100 donation for ALS research. If they did fulfill the task they might also make a donation but that wasn’t always clearly delineated. This brought about a great deal of awareness in regards to ALS, ( ALS is the acronym for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to the person’s death.) This is a disease, like many others, that has devastating effect on people and their families. Hopefully with more research a cure will eventually be found. That was the goal of the challenge.
While the ice bucket being poured over peoples’ heads had no direct link to a cure, it did bring a great deal of attention to the disease and raised a great deal of money. I wondered at times whether people who poured the water on themselves were then inclined to give less. If that was the case then how does one measure the increased awareness brought about by the ubiquitous Facebook presence against the amount of money raised if pouring the bucket reduced the size of donations? According to Nielsen, the ice bucket challenge logged more than 22.5 million social media mentions between July 1 and Aug. 31. By the end of August over 3 million people donated over $100 million to this cause. These figures indicate success of both increased awareness and total amount of dollars raised.
The second challenge was a “gratitude challenge.” If you were challenged you were supposed to list a number of things each day for 5 days for which you are thankful. I actually have seen people doing this for 30 days. Perhaps the purpose of this was to get people to focus on the positive parts of their lives. Does it help? Does it enhance one’s being? Perhaps. But one blogger for the Huffington Post, Lindsay Holmes wrote, “The whole point of this endeavor was to put figurative money where science's mouth is. Does writing down what you're thankful for truly make you happier? The honest truth is, I'm still waiting to find out (and that's OK).”
Of course there were the expected items, such as family, health, friends, personal talents, and career. Of the few expressions of gratitude that I read there was an occasional surprise as to what people appreciated. Sometimes individuals pointed out aspects of their lives that others might not yet have thought of as meriting gratitude. Again I wondered, at the conclusion of one’s challenge do people continue to offer gratitude, now being more aware of its importance, or do they become a bit less expressive and aware of the things for which they are thankful.
Could the following be the result? I finished my challenge. Poof! Now no more thanks. Probably not, but to some extent when people publicly demonstrate one quality, they might not do the same in private.
While gratitude is an essential component that enhances our humanity and is a moral attribute, I doubt that we are required to share all of it on social media. When we are grateful for a kindness done for us by someone else we must turn to them personally and thank them. We can even follow up the verbal response with some other action, a note or a gift that goes beyond voiced words. But announcing it to our 1,347 Facebook friends may not be necessary and may even diminish the true spirit of gratitude. In addition true gratitude is ultimately expressed in what we do, not just in what we say. I found this simple quote which we probably have all heard in some form at some time, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” (Madu Collins)
Our tradition presents us with the opportunity to offer prayers of gratitude numerous times a day; upon waking with “מודה אני“ after Ma Tovu we offer a prayer thanking God first for the functioning of our bodies, with all our organs and then we offer thanks for our spirits, our souls. During the Tefillah there is a paragraph of gratitude which is recited at the three daily services, shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv. I am reminded that the repeated formulae for gratitude are not and should not remain as rote repetition. A rapid recitation of the prayers without thinking about what we should be grateful for in life also lacks the essential essence of what it means to be thankful.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is not a derivative of the word תודה, a word many of us learned early in Hebrew school, but הכרת הטוב, which literally translated means "recognizing the good." Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. The next step is to acknowledge and express what has been recognized.
Let’s start with something simple. It seems logical that we can be thankful for being here together on this day. Today, not only because it is Rosh Hashanah, although that adds an element of meaning and is worthy of our gratitude. To quote the recently deceased Jewish philosopher, Joan Rivers (z”l), “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God’s gift, that’s why we call it the present.” And what is more appropriate than thanking someone when we receive a present, “Thank you very much!”
Thankfulness goes beyond the item one is focusing on for the moment. The following is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, a 19th century teacher. Salanter was appointed the head of a yeshiva in Vilna, where he lived in poverty. In 1842 he established the first Musar society, to study and live by high ethical principles.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once noticed that a fancy restaurant was charging a huge price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the coffee was so expensive. After all, some hot water, a few coffee beans and a spoonful of sugar could not amount to more than a few cents. (Note well: this was not a contemporary story, more than a century before Starbucks.)
The owner replied: "It is correct that for a few cents you could have coffee in your own home. But here in the restaurant, we provide exquisite decor, soft background music, professional waiters, and the finest china to serve your cup of coffee."
Rabbi Salanter's face lit up. "Oh, thank you very much! I now understand the blessing of Shehakol ברוך אתה ה' אלהינ מלך העולם שהכל נהיה בדברו. Blessed are You Adonai Ruler of all by whose word all things came to be.
This is a blessing which we recite before drinking water and other food items that don’t fall under other categories, like bread, baked goods, fruit and vegetables. You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water that was created. Now I understand the blessing much better. 'All' includes not merely the water, but also the fresh air that we breathe while drinking the water, the beautiful world around us, the music of the birds that entertain us and exalt our spirits, each with its different voice, the charming flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze -- for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!"
If we apply that approach to today we can be thankful for our existence, just being here. Having a community around us of family, friends and others who have come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We can be thankful for the freedom and security we have in this country to worship as we choose. We can be thankful for our congregation, Temple Sinai, I know that I am. One can go on and think of many more aspects to the gift of this day. And then we might find various ways to express these feelings.
Rosh Hashanah is a gift because it removes us from routine as we begin the 10 Days of Repentance. We search for meaning in our lives as we examine our behavior and seek to make amends so we can start again. Rabbi Jonathan Saks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, which still includes Scotland, wrote in his Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Personally, I don’t think I’d go that far but to seek self-improvement, to find extra meaning and to insure oneself that we are trying to improve from the mistakes we have made in the past year needs to undergo self-examination. Rosh Hashanah brings us into a setting and atmosphere that provides us a reminder and opportunity to do so, not alone but in community. My teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem reminds us, “There must always be a gap between who we are and who we ought to be, between reality and our aspirations. When our aspirations are fulfilled, there must be something wrong with our aspirations… This is the fundamental idea behind teshuvah and its challenge to us - to embark on a process of self criticism and self reflection.”
And so we have come together on these High Holy Days to examine our lives, attempt to create a path for improvement, and to be thankful for all that we have in life.
It is not only at times of joy and celebration that gratitude can be felt. In fact it might be at difficult times that we should turn our thoughts to what in the situation or in life itself at that moment for which we can offer thanks. Alan Morinis the founder and dean of the Musar Institute teaches how the musar masters of years gone by “were very astute in recognizing that in the midst of a trying situation, all our learning and convictions are likely to fly out the window. Only by practicing do we equip ourselves with the tools that ready us to meet life’s tests in new ways.”
Our tradition prescribes a regular ongoing system of prayer, perhaps to prepare us for the times when we truly need to voice all the emotions and ideas that the prayers express.
Going back to Facebook’s gratitude challenge we can ask ourselves if doing this exercise enables one to continue to reflect each day on what exists in our lives for which we might offer appreciation. By going back to Rabbi Salanter’s story of why a cup of coffee in a restaurant costs so much we can see why he was able to understand that even when we appreciate a single item, there is much that surrounds it that is also worthy of gratitude, even objects that are inanimate.
Morinis teaches us a lesson of this type of gratitude from the life of Moses. If we think about the plagues, specifically the blood and frogs we see that Aaron rather than Moses initiated the action that changed the Nile River into blood and brought out the swarms of frogs. In Rashi’s commentary he teaches that since it was the river that protected Moses as an infant God had Aaron enact the actual plagues. In this way God teaches Moses a lesson of gratitude even for an inanimate river.
Morinis also tells an account of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. When he replaced a pair of worn out shoes he would carefully wrap them in newspaper. Only then would he place them in the trash. He then said, “How can I simply toss away such a fine pair of shoes that have served me so well these past years!?”
I was truly moved by this little story. Who would think to give thanks to a worn out or used up inanimate object. Yet, in reality if it is so well worn that it can no longer be used than it must have provided a great deal of benefit over the years. Doesn’t that alone merit appreciation. And if shoes served us well for a period of our life what about people for many years been there for us but now in their twilight years need us to be there for them.
Many of you have heard the lovely teaching of why we cover the challah on our Shabbat or Festival table. It is done so since the challah is the final thing to be blessed and the cover keeps it from being embarrassed. We learn from that if we worry about the feelings of a challah, a loaf of bread, how much more so must we be concerned with the feelings and embarrassment of another human being.
If the Kotzker Rabbi offers thanks to an old pair of worn out shoes how much more so would he offer thanks to a human who consciously does something of benefit for him, no matter how small. If we refrain from embarrassing a challah how much more so should we take the utmost precautions not to embarrass another human. For some of us that extends to God or whatever unexplained transcendent life force grants us any goodness in our lives.
I think the following quote by David Kreger offers us a synopsis of a good part of what we are doing on these Days of Awe. “Give thanks to God for what you are now, and keep praying and fighting for what you want to be.”
Wishing you all a year of Peace, Health, Love and Gratitude!