One evening, Itzhak Perlman, the great Israeli violinist, was in New York to give a concert.
As a child he had been stricken with polio, and getting on stage was difficult.
He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches.
Perlman crossed the stage painfully slowly, until he reached his chair & sat down to play.
No sooner had he finished the first few bars, than one of the strings on his violin snapped.
He had just started the piece.
It would have been reasonable to bring the concert to a halt while he replaced the string, but that's not what he did.
He waited a moment & then signaled the conductor to pick up just where they had left off.
Perlman now had only three strings remaining with which to play his solo.
He played with passion and artistry, spontaneously rearranging the symphony right through to the end.
When he finally rested his bow, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence.
Then they rose to their feet, cheering wildly.
They knew they had witnessed something extraordinary.
Perlman raised his bow to signal for quiet.
"You know," he said,
"sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left."
His words reverberated in the silence.
"…Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left."
Leaving us to wonder, was Perlman speaking of his violin strings? Of his crippled body? Of only artists?
All of us are lacking in some way.
How can we enable ourselves to feel the hodayah, the gratitude,
for all that we already have, so that we can use it more fully?
Our Jewish liturgy highlights the need for hodayah, gratitude,
and revolves around increasing this mindfulness.
Traditionally, the first blessings to emerge from our lips in the morning proclaim,
“Thank you, Eternal, for opening my eyes.
Thank you for clothing me.
Thank you for lifting my feet to take a step.
Thank you for creating such a finely balanced network of veins and arteries
so I can experience my bodily functions in joy.”
Each blessing allows us to thank the Eternal for our many gifts—
to specify, to hear, to consider a reason behind our hodayah, our gratitude.
We have dozens of blessings to choose from:
thanking the Source of Life for creating us in the divine image, girding us with strength, restoring our souls each morning.
In each blessing we acknowledge the good, the fortune, the harmony in our lives.
In increments, our awareness shifts.
We can redirect our focus—away from pain, away from bitterness, away from our shortcomings.
In fact, the name for "Jew," Yehudah,
comes from the same Hebrew root as the word l’hodot, to thank.
Many of us already know the word todah, which means “thank you.”
We Yehudim, we Jews, are a grateful people.
The ancient ritual of offering sacrifices also promoted gratitude as a daily discipline. Once sacrifices were no longer possible,
after the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE,
the rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice—one of the most significant shifts in Jewish worship.
However, our prayer service emerged from that sacrificial system.
Historically, there were several types of sacrifices: burnt offerings (olah), sin offerings (korban chatat), guilt offerings (ha’asham), and offerings of thanksgiving (zevach shlamim).
Burnt offerings were the most common type of sacrifice.
They represented submission to God’s will.
A burnt offering was completely burnt on the altar.
No part of it was eaten by anyone because it represented complete submission to God's will, with nothing held back.
Sin offerings atoned and purged a sin to reconcile with God.
The Hebrew term for this type of offering is chatat, from the word chet, meaning "missing the mark."
A chatat could only be offered for unintentional sins committed through carelessness,
not for intentional, malicious sins.
The size of the offering varied according to the nature of the sin
and the financial means of the sinner. The chatat was eaten by the priests.
Guilt offerings atoned for either stealing from the altar, for desecrating something holy, or when one was not sure they had committed a sin.
The Hebrew word for a guilt offering is asham.
We say the Ashamnu prayer repeatedly over the High Holy Days, asking for forgiveness. An asham was eaten by the kohanim, or priests.
A sin offering acknowledged a sin; a guilt offering also reconciled a sin;
but a thanksgiving offering was not brought for a sin. It was freely chosen to thank God. The thanksgiving offering, also called a peace offering, was divided:
a portion of the offering was burnt on the altar, a portion was given to the priest,
and the rest was eaten by the offerer and their family.
Thus, everyone received some part of the offering. All of the other types of sacrifice acknowledged one’s misstep and resolved to do better in the future.
However, the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering, had an entirely different purpose. Rather than compensation for human shortcoming,
this Korban Todah marks abundant, Ineffable goodness.
While other sacrifices were a response to human imperfections or even evil,
the Korban Todah was an affirmation of life’s worth and a way to draw close to the Creator.
The ancient rabbis, so enchanted with the Korban Todah, declared,
Prayers of gratitude superseded all others.
Our sacred stories laud hodayah, the quality of gratitude.
The story of Hannah, which we will read tomorrow morning,
depicts one of our seven female prophets overflowing with gratitude for the gift of her child, Samuel.
Hannah was barren for many years, and her story begins with her helplessness.
She dedicates Samuel to the priesthood in thankfulness for his birth.
Although giving up Samuel must have been heart-wrenching,
Hannah’s act embodies ultimate gratitude.
Her acknowledgement that God blessed her with the capacity to bear a healthy child leads to authentic gratitude and happiness.
Hannah has many more children and her days overflow with loving relationships.
She enriches her life with hodayah.
Most of us tend to focus upon and thereby enlarge the deficiencies in our lives.
Why is it a struggle to perceive the good that is also present?
We all know the power of our thinking to shape our reality.
The more we cultivate an outlook and a practice of hodayah, →
the more we actively bless each good that touches our lives, →
the more we see the goodness surrounding us.
Then we may even discover the resources to do for others.
* * * *
A Chasidic story captures this struggle.
Each of a Rebbe’s disciples constantly complained of his troubles.
They carped. They whined, unable to understand anyone else’s tzuris.
So the Rebbe told each disciple to put his troubles in a sack and to bring the sack to shul. Everyone dumped his sack of troubles on the floor.
The Rebbe mixed them up, and directed, "Each of you shoulder someone else's sack." Well, after just a week, all the disciples came back begging for their own sacks.
They realized their own familiar tzuris was less terrible than their fellow’s.
That isn't to say that our own troubles aren't real. Many of us suffer losses.
We have loved ones coping with illness, who can't get back on their feet.
Perhaps we can't find work or make ends meet. We lose friends.
These sorrows are too real.
Nevertheless, might we be able to see a larger picture, to find a path for gratitude despite our sorrow?
Truthfully, there is no limit to what we do not have.
If we focus on what we lack, then our lives will be narrowed by despair.
What would it be like to embrace the many wonders of living,
the triggers for gratitude every day?
For the miracle of being able to build and celebrate community—the joy of sharing in the struggles and rewards of other people’s lives.
For the blessing of being able to make this world a little better,
a little more caring, a little more human, than when we entered it.
For the chance to cultivate kedusha, holiness in our daily lives.
For the opportunity to think, to feel, to experience, to question, to love.
Hodayah can only come from mindfulness.
It is easy to walk through life without noticing, unaware, unconnected.
We know the power of blessing, of thanking, but how do we cultivate this practice? First, we make a conscious effort to see our blessings. Then we name our blessings. Finally we acknowledge our blessings.
Let us take a moment now to consider what keeps us from expressing our gratitude: from seeing, from naming, from acknowledging?
I know that for me, acknowledging my blessings during times of joy and contentment comes easily.
When I feel lost or scared, I struggle to connect to feelings of gratitude,
or to believe I have the control to reach out to something higher.
My inclination is to stew in my discontent or intellectualize my fear.
How can I turn from it? How can I free myself?
Choose one of those hard moments as an opportunity for praise.
Reach outside hurt feelings and strive to bless.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, ha-tov v'ha-mateev.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe,
who is good and creates goodness.
We fail to experience hodayah because we think of it primarily as some kind of feeling. But feelings are transient and ephemeral.
Gratitude is not a feeling but a persistent vision of thankfulness leading to kind acts and kind words.
Hodayah is a mindset, a learned way of seeing and thinking rooted in a realization of our blessings and a guide to actions.
The social consequences of hodayah go beyond the relationship of one beneficiary to a benefactor.
Gratitude and its wake of positive emotions,
Frederickson concludes, gratitude leads to more creative modes of thinking
as people consider a wider array of reactions to each other and events.
In addition, gratitude feeds humility.
The humble better appreciate what is owed to others—divine or human.
We all benefit from the opportunity to live in a world of hodayah.
Can we harness this practice of praise and thanksgiving now?
Decide not to let our sufferings overwhelm life’s blessings?
On this Rosh Hashana, may we become Yehudim, thanking, finding gratitude.
In the words of Itzhak Perlman, may we always find ways to make beautiful music with exactly what we already have within us.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, ha-tov v'ha-mateev.
Blessed are You, Eternal Sovereign, who is good and creates goodness.