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Kol Nidrei 5781 – Gratitude

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

A blind boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He held up a sign which read, “I am blind, please help if you can.”

Only a few coins were in the hat – spare change from folks as they hurried past. A woman stopped. She took a few coins from her purse and dropped them into the hat. She then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote some words. She put the sign back in the boy’s hand for everyone to see.

Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money. Later that afternoon, the woman who had changed the sign returned to see how things were. The boy recognized her footsteps; he asked, “Were you the one who changed my sign? What did you write?”

The woman answered, “I said what you said but in a different way. I wrote, ‘Today is a beautiful day, but I cannot see it.’ The first sign simply said that you are blind; the second sign, on the other hand, conveyed to the readers how grateful they should be to have vision.”

Having gratitude is a habit. It’s a way of looking at the world and the many good things in it with a feeling of appreciation, regardless of whether or not your current situation is to your liking. And right now, quite frankly, is there anyone who can say that the current situation is to their liking? Even if your life is going pretty well – you have a job, a decent income, your health, a relationship – I hope that your concern for your fellow humans and the overall state of the world is one for which you would say that the current situation isn’t particularly good. But that doesn’t mean you should be ungrateful.

Many people use the expression “to cultivate an attitude of gratitude” to describe how being appreciative can become a habit. While the expression is a bit too kitchy for me, I do love its mess¬age. Gratitude is a heart-centered approach to being at peace with your¬self and with what you have. When you put this into practice, you discover more things in your life for which to be grateful.

Judaism has been teaching this approach to life for about 1800 years. In the Mishnah, a compilation of Jewish teachings from around the year 200, we read:
Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy, and you shall prosper.” Prosper does not mean that you will become monetarily wealthy – rather, it means that your spiritual life will deepen – be that with God, other people, animals, nature, or what¬ever brings to you the sense of the Divine.

Ben Zoma’s teaching isn’t the only expression of gratitude we find in the Jewish tradition. Our prayer books contain blessings in which the core words are “thank you.”
The first is Modim Anachnu Lach, and it is a part of the Amidah, the central set of prayers said in virtually every worship service. The words begin as follows:
מוֹדִם אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ שָׁאַתָּה הוּא יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וְעֶד.

The complete prayer is as follows: We acknowledge with thanks that You are Adonai, our God and the God of our ancestors forever. You are the Rock of our lives, and the Shield of our salvation in every generation. Let us thank You and praise You – for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are in Your care, for Your miracles that we experience every day and for Your wondrous deeds and favors at every time of day: evening, morning and noon. O Good One, whose mercies never end, O Compassionate One, whose kind¬ness never fails, we forever put our hope in You. For all these things, O Sovereign, let Your name be forever praised and blessed. O God, our Redeemer and Helper, let all who live affirm You and praise Your name in truth. Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name is goodness and You are worthy of thanksgiving.
This prayer is stated in the plural; even those who are in pain or are struggling must express their gratitude to God. No exceptions.
The second prayer is Modeh Ani. While we recite it as a part of our morning blessings, it is traditionally said upon waking. The words are brief:
מוֹדָה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

I give thanks before You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy; how great is Your faith.
This time we pray in the singular, for God’s love is for me; and that love is so great that I have been given another day to experience life.
Living life with a sense of gratitude isn’t easy in the best of times – never mind during a pandemic, an economic crisis, a nation fraught with racial inequity, and a divided citizenry. And yet, there are so many things, big and small, for which we can be grateful.

Most of us have our health or have recovered from COVID or other health challenges. New Hampshire has been relatively spared com¬pared to other states from the harshest realities of the coronavirus, and the Concord area has been hit minimally. For those who are considered “long-term” COVID survivors, most finally feel relief. Please know that you have the love and support of this community.

We have our families – even if it feels like we’ve perhaps spent a bit too much time with our immediate families since March. While we probably have not seen other family members as often as we did before the pandemic, many of us have developed regular check-ins and are actually in more frequent contact with more significant conversations. For my recent birthday my brother’s note was unlike anything he had ever written to me before – and we’ve always been close. It was pure love and a reminder that he is always there for me.

We have our friends. While we have all faced the pandemic and its challenges, some of us have had extra burdens – loved ones have died or been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, our marriages have broken down or ended, we stay at home because of our own vulnerabilities, and so much more. Many of us have found the loving presence of friends through the extra hardships we have faced.

Outside of our personal lives, let us remember that we live in a remarkable place: We rank among the top ten states in education; we have a strong economy, with relatively low unem-ployment; and the housing market is quite strong. Yes, there are many ways in which we’d like to see things change in New Hampshire, but much is right about this state. And concerning things changing, let’s also remember that we live in a democracy, where we have the freedom to vote, speak our minds, gather, protest, petition, and more.

There is one more prayer of gratitude from our prayer book: It’s the second half of a prayer called Nishmat Kol Chai, meaning “the soul of every living thing.” The words are:
Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy in countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse, and our eyes to shine like sun and moon; and if our hands were spread out like heaven’s eagles and our feet swift like young deer, we could never thank You adequately, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, for a ten-thousandth of the many myriads of times You granted favors to our ancestors and to us.
This prayer celebrates the Israelites redemption from Egypt. It is also traditionally recited when we have avoided a disaster (a beam falling and landing near us); it’s the companion prayer to Birkat Gomel, which we said before I began my remarks, and which is recited when we have been delivered from a calamity (recovering after the beam hits us).

So what does the inclusion of prayers of gratitude in our sacred liturgy, particularly Nishmat Kol Chai and Birkat Gomel, tell us? That no matter how difficult our lives may be, with metaphoric beams falling all around us, we can and must be grateful.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784