The holiday of Thanksgiving, like Shabbat, was created and placed into our calendars as an opportunity to lay back and take time to reflect on the people and event in our lives. It is an opening, a space in time, to revel what we might not have been able to do at the time of the event or the encounter. I look at this space in time as a gift, as an opportunity to offer gratitude to God and the people around us.
Our tradition teaches us to say 100 blessings a day, from the first moment of consciousness, to the last breath we take upon this earth. I acknowledge that at times it is hard to be in the state of constant gratitude, however, it is such a joy to try.
I looked up on the web people’s statements on this topic; here is some of what I found:
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Marcel Proust
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Thích Nhất Hạnh
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Epicurus
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Sometimes life knocks you on you down, get up, get up, get up!!! Happiness is not the absence of problems; it's the ability to deal with them.” Steve Maraboli
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” Eckhart Tolle
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Meister Eckhart
“We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” John F. Kennedy
“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.” Kahlil Gibran
“Faith is the bird that sings to the dawn while it is still dark.” Kabir
May your Thanksgiving celebration be filled with thankfulness. Amen.
By Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
This week’s Torah reading, Vayislach, exemplifies the very Jewish philosophy that blessings exist in all of life, even in our troubles. For some, it is our troubles that help to reveal the deepest blessings.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, "recognizing the good." Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours.
There is a saying that my happier friends recite: “I may not have everything that I want. But, I want everything that I have.” This may be difficult, as “everything I have” includes my troubles. In Judaism, the world and everything within is from G-d. This is in contrast to faiths that see the negative as a force outside of G-d, one with which G-d must contend.
Twenty years after running from the mess he created at home, Jacob wants to take his family to the holy land, the place of his birth. To do this he must, himself, return to holiness. He must confront himself and his past deeds. While others may help us, ultimately, this is something we must each do alone. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” – Genesis 32:25
On his journey home, he finds himself alone and at the same time engaged in wrestling. Anyone who has ever made a mess of things knows that the only way to return is to take responsibility for the wreckage we create. Jacob, like most of us, initially dreads the prospect of facing his troubles, be they self inflicted or outwardly imposed. Also, like most of us, Jacob ends up discovering the deepest and most profound blessings by acknowledging his entire self, including his “dark side”. It is only in truth that we discover the beauty of true t’shuvah, redemption and return to holiness.
In Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik states that “redemption is achieved when humble man makes a movement of recoil, and allows himself be confronted and defeated by a Higher and Truer Being.”
Interestingly, it is in Jacob’s “dark” nights, here and previously at Beth-El that Jacob recognizes his blessings. Here, like Beth-El, he expresses and memorializes his gratitude with a reminder – a stone monument.
As solid as these stone monuments - and maybe even more permanent reminders of the great blessings of the Jewish people - are the names by which the Jewish people are called: Yehudim and Israel.
When Leah had her fourth child, she named him “Yehudah,” which means “I am grateful,” This reflected her gratitude to God for the gift of another son. The name Yehudah is the source of the Hebrew name of the Jewish people (Yehudim), revealing the very direct tie between Judaism and gratitude.
Israel, the name given to Jacob (singular) and collectively to the Jewish people, means to” wrestle with God”. We are a people who are blessed to be alive, conscious and awake in the struggle to harmonize our divine and material essences and inclinations. May we all be blessed to be conscious in the practice of hakarat hatov and may we all continue to be blessed to confront ourselves with Torah, Tefillah, and Tradition, seeing the good within and allowing it to prevail.
Every morning, among the blessings for the miracles of each day, we say the blessing "Baruch atah adonai,eloheinu melech ha'olam, poke'ach ivrim" -- "Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind." And then later, we say "Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, ha-mevir shena m'einai u'tnumah me-afapai" -- "who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids." This week, let us allow these blessing, to remind us to truly open our eyes to the wonder of life and to be awake to blessings that exist, even in our troubles.
And, let us all say Amen.
On my recent trip to Israel on a beautiful afternoon, we drove along the coast of the magnificent Mediterranean Sea to visit a childhood friend near Natanya. As we got off the main highway towards his neighborhood, I suddenly saw, as I made the turn, a large-scale sculpture. It was very different. At first glance I did not recognize its meaning. I thought it was based on the theme of Jacob’s ladder, but looking a little closer, I realized that the images are soldiers and not angels ascending the ladder to heaven. I was stunned. What is all this about, I wondered.
When we got to our friend’s home, I asked him to explain to me the meaning of this unique sculpture at the entrance to his neighborhood. He looked at me with a surprise on his face, and asked, “Don’t you know what this is?” “No,” I said. He went on, “Do you remember about 7 years ago a homicidal Arab detonated his backpack and killed about 14 soldiers waiting at the bus station.” “Yes, I remember,” I answered. He continued, “In the commotion of smoke, screams, and body parts all over the area, people ran to aid the wounded. Suddenly, while everyone was busy triaging the wounded, the homicidal bomber detonated himself and killed another eight soldiers.” “Oh my God. Yes, I remember this event,” I commented. “Well,” he continued, “this is an artist's interpretation of these soldiers ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder.” My heart was heavy and profoundly sad.
I could not get the sculpture out of my mind. Suddenly, I remembered Maimonides' writing and interpretation on the purpose of Jacob’s ladder. In his book, Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides quotes, “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing upon it” (Gen 28:12-13). He explains that the purpose of the ladder is to explain the relationship between two realities, between the existence on earth, and the existence in the “world of heavenly spheres,” both are set into action by God. The ladder is the connection between the two worlds, the heavenly and the earthly worlds. The angels ascend and become inspired, and then they descend and transmit the understanding they got in heaven to the earthly world.
Since in Isaiah 56:7 it is written, “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” I believe at Ahavat Torah we put into practice and observe this verse for the past six years.
We, each and every one of us, are the ascending angels who get inspired by our tradition’s teaching, whether it is the Torah, New Testament or the Koran, and than descend and convey our understanding of living in peace and harmony with one another. The best moral lesson is that at this point in our relationship, we practice patience, give love, and value the deep understanding with our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters.
May the steps of Jacob’s ladder be the stepladder to peace, harmony and understanding of one another. Amen.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.