“There is a well-known scene in Fiddler on The Roof, when Tevye and the other men of the village are discussing the Czar of Russia. Someone suggests that a blessing be said on behalf of the czar. Another asks inquisitively, “Is there a blessing for the czar?” The rabbi responds, “In Judaism there is a blessing for everything.” He continues, “May the Lord bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”
Obviously, no such blessing exists, but the rabbi in Fiddler hits on something: the practice of gratitude permeates Judaism. What I would like to explore this evening are the times when we don’t feel gratitude. The times when we are hurting, or grieving, or angry and may feel resentful proclaiming gratitude and reciting blessings.
Once, after a heartbreaking breakup a friend said to me, “Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” I was infuriated! I didn’t want to be told I should feel grateful for all that I had which was now lost. What I needed to hear was, “I care about you, I’m here for you, and I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”
What does Judaism have to say about expressing gratitude when we are not in touch feeling thankful or when we are hurting? I suggest that during times of pain, or anger, or sadness, we not try to find gratitude within the painful situation, but instead, rely on the Jewish practice of daily blessings to help move us away from focusing on our particular hurts to the small comforts of daily living—the wonder and beauty within the ordinary that we sometimes forget.
We know that there is a blessing for almost everything in Judaism: a blessing for getting up in the morning, for going to sleep, for eating, for seeing wondrous things, for experiencing new things, for the occurrence of good things, for the unfortunate occurrence of bad things, for hearing the news of someone’s death, for seeing someone you have not seen in a long time, for going to the bathroom, for studying Torah, for going on a journey, for fulfilling almost any religious commandment, and for just about everything else.
In the Talmud, one Rabbi instructs us to recite one hundred blessings each day. This teaching is a way for us to foster gratitude, and Jewish tradition encourages a daily practice of reciting blessings of thanksgiving to the Eternal for the goodness in our lives.
There are two basic types of blessings: those that respond to awe, and those that seek to stimulate awe within us. As rabbis Kerry Olitsky and Daniel Judson explain, blessings that respond to awe are those we say when seeing or experiencing something amazing, such as the birth of a child. Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu Melekh ha-olam, ha-tov v’hameitiv, Praised are You, Eternal, Sovereign of the universe, who is good, and does good. Blessings that seek to stimulate awe within us are those said over routine things, such as the blessing before eating bread: Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu Melekh ha-olam, ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. The blessings over routine acts keep us mindful of the awe within the everyday. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us that blessings help us “to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all being.”
A practice of gratitude is one of the ways we might move away from our pain toward solace and comfort for all the good present in our lives. I remember during that same time when my heart was hurting so much, I went for an early morning bike ride. As I stepped out the door of my Upper West Side apartment into the chilly spring air, the sun was hitting a little ginkgo tree right in front of my apartment in such a way that the leaves shimmered and sparkled. I stopped in my tracks, my breath caught in my throat, and I said, “Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu Melekh ha-olam, oseh ma’asei bereshit,” the blessing for seeing beautiful things in nature. Blessed are you Eternal, who makes the works of Creation. That blessing felt right and true to me, acknowledging the beauty that stirred my soul. I didn’t want to be forced to acknowledge how much stronger I’d be after grieving this loss, or the empathy I would develop, or all the lessons I’d learn. But I could voice my gratitude for shimmering rays of sunlight, or a night of good sleep when the previous ones had been fitful, and I could affirm the smile of a passerby on the street and all of the other small blessings of life that buoy us through hardships.
On this Thanksgiving, when many of us feel immense gratitude for all of the blessings in our lives and at the same time continue to struggle and hurt, may we find ways to respond to awe and ways to stimulate awe within ourselves. May we truly feel the tremendous strength we each possess to endure hard times, our strength made all the more powerful by the ability to voice gratitude throughout our pain.
As we continue on this journey through life, I share a blessing by Naomi Levy:
Elohai neshama she-nata bi tehora hi.
The soul you have created in me is a pure one.
You have blessed me with many gifts, Eternal; it is my task to realize them and live up to the best in my soul.
May I never underestimate my potential; may I never lose hope.
May I find the strength to strive for better, the courage to be different, the energy to give all that I have to offer.
Thank you, Eternal, for the soul you have created within me and the power to grow into it.