A Teshuvah, A Return to Blessings of Gratitude
Rabbi Rachel Kort
Temple Beth Or, Everett Erev Rosh HaShanah 5781
Once, a man named Isaac lived in Cracow. Isaac wasn’t a rich man. He had a family, a tiny house, and an old stove that kept his family warm through long Polish winters. One night, Isaac had a dream: there was a treasure buried under a bridge in Prague. He did what any normal person would do. He ignored the dream. But the next night, he had the same dream. And then again for a third night! It was so real, he couldn’t ignore it. So, the next morning, even though his family thought he was crazy, he made the long journey to Prague. Isaac stood looking at the bridge. “It’s exactly as in my dreams…except for all the soldiers guarding it!”
A soldier approached. Isaac thought it would be best to tell the truth. Perhaps they could share the treasure! The soldier laughed, “And so to please your dream, you wore out your shoes! If I had faith in dreams, I should have gone to Cracow long ago to dig for treasure under the stove in the house of a Jewish man named Isaac.” Isaac tipped his hat to the soldier and quickly set off for home. When he arrived, he found his treasure.
Yes, Isaac’s treasure existed right under his nose, in his own home! But before he could find these riches, he needed to journey to that bridge and then turn back to see his home in a new light. Teshuvah, our Jewish concept of repentance, isn’t necessarily a recognition of faults and failures. Teshuvah literally means ‘return.’ It can be an opportunity to return and revisit the familiar with new appreciation and gratitude.
Mussar is a traditional Jewish practice of spiritual development that uses techniques similar to modern mindfulness and gratitude exercises. Although, in the mid-1800s, Mussar founder, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, didn’t use that vocabulary. Mussar means ‘instruction’ and focus on ‘how a person ought to behave in the world.’ (Sa’adia Ga’on, 10th century). Rabbi Alan Morinis is widely considered the leader of the resurgence of contemporary Mussar. Morinis teaches, “the Torah…reveals in no uncertain terms what a human being’s job description is: ‘You shall be holy’–Atem kedoshim (Leviticus 19:2). In essence, we are here on earth for no other purpose than to grow and blossom spiritually—to become holy. Our potential and therefore our goal should be to become as spiritually elevated as is possible.”
Spiritual elevation. A lofty goal, but it can be as simple as reciting a blessing. The 20th century Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, escaped Poland during World War II and came to the U.S. Heschel defined being spiritual as being amazed: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible, never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
We have returned to our homes this past year. Our homes are our everything … where we eat, sleep, work, learn, socialize, exercise. We to recognize the blessings closest to home this year.
My family instituted a new routine when things shut down in March. We’ve been reciting the bedtime Shema since Galit was a baby, but we started reciting a simple blessing of gratitude each morning. ‘Modah Ani L’Faneicha’ meaning: I give thanks to God for me, thank you for this new day. For thousands of years our tradition has invited us to begin the day this way. Our family offers this blessing to a techno setting on Spotify. I’m pretty sure Heschel would have appreciated our morning ‘Modah Ani’ dance party. To quote Heschel again. “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”
We’ll spend our evening together offering blessings of gratitude. In a few minutes, we’ll raise our glasses and make kiddush to sanctify this day. Tomorrow morning, Cantor Dreskin will help us begin the day with morning blessings and mindfulness at 8:00 am. You are encouraged to dial into Zoom, pop in earbuds and take Cantor Dreskin with you on a morning walk. If you are interested in developing a mindfulness and gratitude practice engaging Jewish traditions, I want to invite you to find this sermon on our Beth Or website where I include a list of resources.
We can’t pray COVID away. Our blessings won’t change the difficult situations we find ourselves in personally, locally, nationally, around our world. But acknowledging the blessings around us gives us sacred purpose during this difficult time. Atem Kedoshim. Our purpose in this world is to be holy.
- Rabbi Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar
- Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, Blessings for Life’s Journey: Transformative Meditations and Readings
- Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, 100 Blessings Every Day: Daily Twelve Step Recovery Affirmations, Exercises for Personal Growth & Renewal Reflecting Seasons of the Jewish Year
- Central Conference of American Rabbis, Daily Blessings App: A full menu of traditional and innovative blessings for life’s sacred moments.