Rabbi’s Corner: Gratitude

I was unpacking a box the other day and found this small, laminated tri-fold “T’filat Todah – Prayer of Thanks” card. “Thank you, God for all that things that I do have, and thank you God for the things that I don’t have. Thank you for my periodic difficulties, my occasional setbacks, and for the times when I don’t feel happy…” I placed it on my desk to remind me to stop kvetching (complaining) about insignificant matters. I have so much for which to be grateful. I also learn so much about gratitude from all who are those in my life, family, friends, community. A few of the many expressions of gratitude I’ve observed recently:

    • My brother ringing the bell as he finished his last chemo treatment for stage 4 metastatic lymphoma, as he prepares for his son’s upcoming celebration of Bar Mitzvah;
    • My friends’ celebration of achieving a 1000+ mile walking goal with their non-verbal autistic son, started during covid, when his work-study program shut down and their son’s new-found love of walking;
    • Families’ joy at seeing their loved ones in-person after three years of only virtual visits;
    • A mother’s beaming, loving smile as she introduces me to her daughter who was born with many challenges;
    • Our school-age students who greet each other, and sometimes me, with huge bear hugs, so grateful for the gifts of friendship and community;
    • The beautiful smiles and joy-filled hearts of those who have health or other challenges and who are so thrilled to be present each and every day.

Our Jewish tradition teaches there is a difference between gratitude and thankfulness. Rabbi Norman Lamm, the now retired head of Yeshiva University once described this difference: “thankfulness can be understood as courtesy or social gesture in which I give thanks only for goods received. It is a kind of verbal receipt – you give me something, I thank you. It is the polite, socially expected way to behave – a social construct.

Gratitude on the other hand, can be viewed as a higher level – not based on construct but on consecration – the consecration of one’s whole character. It is a state of mind in which a person is so devoted to the Almighty, so dedicated to transcendent values, so elevated beyond petty, selfish concerns, that he feels himself grasped by a pervasive gratefulness even when he has not received some special favor in advance…. [Gratitude]..is a reaction of the total personality; [It is] deeply personal, profoundly human.” (paraphrased from Dr. Rabbi Norman Lamm, Sermon on Gratitude, “Gratitude is Good for the Soul” given sometime in the 1970’s, republished in 2013).

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we learn that when we express gratitude, it has both spiritual and physical elements. In Deuteronomy 26:1ff the Israelites are instructed to express their gratitude to God for their first harvest in the Promised Land as well as to express gratitude for their redemption from slavery. They do so not only by offering sacrifices to God, but by tithing ten percent of their crops to those who don’t have the ability to provide for themselves: the Levite, the non-Israelite, the orphan and the widow. Gratitude is therefore, both spiritual and physical: we acknowledge God’s role in our lives and then we do something to share our blessings with others.

As we approach the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, may we live each day with fullness of life and by expressions of gratitude for the gifts of each new day.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom

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