We Jews are big on gratitude—it’s built into our name: when our matriarch Leah, one of Jacob’s wives, had her fourth son, she named him Judah, which she said means, “I give thanks.” From his name came the tribe of Judah—or Yehudah; from which came the land Judea and the term Yehudim—from which comes Jew: our very name means gratitude.
Judah or Yehudah comes from the same root for saying thank you in Hebrew—todah! And it has many meanings–both thanks and acknowledgement: acknowledging the good that has been given us, acknowledging whoever has given us the gift.
It is the same word that appears in the first prayer we say in the morning: Modah ani, with basically says—Thank you—I acknowledge before You, the living and eternal breath of the universe—that you have returned my soul to me and with lovingkindness and faith.
Modeh/modah ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, sh’hechezarta bi nishmati, b’chemla, rabbah emunatecha.
Another version of the word is Hodu, a word of thanks that appears in a number of psalms, for example, psalm 136 repeat Hodu…ki l’olam chasdo, with means “Let’s thank…for God’s kindness is eternal.” (Then it lists many reasons to give thanks.)
Interestingly, hodu is also the Hebrew word for turkey. (There’s a long etymological story.)
Another Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours—even being able to see the good in things we might not initially think of as good. Really cultivating the attitude of gratitude…
Another way of looking at it come from a poem by a 20th Century rabbi, Ben Zion Bokser (1907-1984:
I did not make the air I breathe
Nor the sun that warms me…
I did not endow the muscles
Of hand and brain
With the strength
To plough and plant and harvest…
I am not
A self-made man.
We also have a practice of saying a blessing as an acknowledgement for what people do for us, for what we have. We can even recognize the good we receive from inanimate objects. The Talmud has a long discussion about whether the liturgy should start with prayers of thanks or prayers of request first. What works for you?
The rabbis decided better to start with prayers of thanks, then prayers of request. We ask for entirely different things when we have found our gratitude place.
And indeed, they encourage us to say 100 blessings a day—to recognize 100 times the good that has come our way. And to say it out loud. If one were to pray the traditional liturgy the traditional way—3 times a day and before and after meals, that’s 100 right there… But I think it’s even better to recognize…how great the cup of coffee was; what a great job someone did bagging groceries; the delicious flavor of the tomato picked ripe from the garden. See if you can reach 100 in a day.
Albert Einstein said, “A hundred times a day, I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men and women and nature, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure I have received and am still receiving.”
We have a strong ethos, embedded in a great Talmudic proverb which asks, “Who is rich?” and then answers, “One who rejoices in their own lot.” (Avot 4:1)
A story on gratitude from one of our great teachers…
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 couldn’t amount to more than a few cents in the 19th Century.
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 – ‘All was created by God’s word’ – the blessing before drinking water. Until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water itself. 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 lift our spirits, the flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze – for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!”
As you gather with friends or family, or help at a shelter, or work to serve the community, remember to give thanks for all that you do have. Many of us in my communities have lost so much this year: home, almost every possession, a sense of safety, loved ones, health, a sense that our democracy is strong enough to withstand the current administration. But we are still here; many of our loved ones are too; the first responders stepped up even as they were losing their homes or who came from outside to help; the resistance has so far saved the ACA; that sexual harassment and assault are being called for what they have always been: wrong. For me, I am grateful for
my beloved husband and his devotion and care for our family and his continued basically good health,
My sweet and kind daughter, whose thoughtfulness is inspiring,
my cats who shower me with love on their terms (and the humility they instill as I accept their terms),
my dear friends who walk spiritual paths with me, the ability to serve communities, to listen and share stories, love, kindness and compassion.
As Psalm 150 ends: Kol haneshama t’hallelya, halleluyah: may everything that breaths, every soul praise the divine, the mystery at the core of the universe, the still small voice within.