Sunday, November 22, 2020

Portion Vayetze: Gratitude/Hakarat ha-Tov

For many of us, gratitude will be complicated this Thanksgiving.  The failure of our state officials to take significant action in the face of a catastrophic pandemic breaks the heart.  Sickness, and the fear of it, cast a pall over the usual seasonal joys.  Our holiday tables, often surrounded by beloved family and friends, will be filled with empty chairs.  It is dark and lonely out there.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches in this challenging year, how might we give thanks?  

Fortunately, this week’s portion, Vayetze, offers a powerful lesson for Thanksgiving and beyond.  We do well to look to the example of our matriarch, Leah, who one Talmudic sage describes as the first person in the history of the world to express gratitude to God.  How can this be?  Generations before Leah, many others, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca all offered thanks to the Holy One.  But Leah’s gratitude is unique—because it is so hard-won.

All of her life, she is unloved by her husband, Jacob, who devotes himself to her prettier younger sister, Rachel.  For years, Leah laments this reality, naming her first three sons in a manner that expresses her pain and disappointment.  But when her fourth child is born, she calls him Judah, meaning, “This time, I will give thanks to God.”  (That beautiful name is the root of the word “Jew.”  We are called to be a people who are grateful.)

What has happened here?  How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing?  In his brilliant book, The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held notes: 

Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does.  It is crucial to emphasize that Leah's gratitude does not magically set everything aright and banish every other feeling she has.  Her disappointment is real, and deep. But she is also grateful, for despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.

In other words, disappointment and gratitude are not exclusive.  In this life, we can’t always get what we want; indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the contrary, we sometimes don’t even get what we need.  Disappointment is inevitable.  But it should not blot out the possibility of gratitude.  As Rabbi Held concludes, Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience.  Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness? 


This week’s midah/character trait is gratitude—in the Hebrew, hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”  Gratitude lies at the heart of so many of our regular Jewish practices, especially saying blessings.  Our tradition offers blessings—brachot—for so many activities, from eating (with different blessings depending upon the source of the food), performing mitzvot/commandments, and witnessing natural wonders and phenomenon, like mountains, rivers, rainbows and shooting stars.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously noted, “Just to be is a blessing.”  And the Chasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reminded us that gratitude roots out arrogance and resentment, proclaiming: Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.  Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

On an index card—or on your phone or other portable electronic device—write down Alan Morinis’s beautiful mantra for gratitude: Awake to the good and give thanks.

During this Thanksgiving week, repeat and meditate upon that phrases regularly.

Try to find something good in every situation, and acknowledge it as good. 

No comments: