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"it is gratefulness which makes the soul great"

My friend Lisa is one of the most inspiring people I know.

She’s not rich or famous (although, actually- she is a little bit famous, as a prolific Young Adult literature author with more than 20 commercially successful books, but, I digress).

The reason Lisa inspires me is because she works at being happy.

In fact, she works at it pretty hard.

When we were 17 years old, she started a “grateful journal”.

It was a hardcover journal, that she had probably bought at a Barnes and Noble on Long Island, that traveled with her everywhere: from her childhood bedroom, to Bunk 19 at Eisner Camp, to her college dorm room in Binghamton, and on all her travels in between. Lisa would stop every night before bed, and write down the things she was grateful for that day.

It was a pretty impressive habit for such a young person, but as people saw in her even back then--- Lisa was always kind of an old soul: wanting to record and preserve the very best pieces of her life for posterity.

And then, life happened- and she sort of broke the habit, until her eldest daughter was born. With that new life came a new practice, and a new grateful journal.

Now, every day for the past 10 years, Lisa ends each day writing down the five things that happened in her day for which she was most grateful.

This week, just the day before me, Lisa will turn forty, and with that milestone, mark much of her adult life spent actively pursuing gratitude. From her teen years to now, Lisa has ended each day with a few moments spent just noticing: reviewing her day, and ritualizing that noticing by writing down the things which move her, which bring her meaning, and which give her that feeling of gratitude.

There are a lot of voices in the “self-care” space that preach an “attitude of gratitude” --- but if I’ve learned anything from my friend, it’s that actually it’s more of a habit.

Gratitude has become a bit of a buzzword in our culture--- we are reminded to be grateful as though gratitude alone is medicine for our souls. We buy trinkets reminding us to be grateful--- mugs and magnets and notebooks and tshirts reminding us to “count our blessings” and proclaiming that “gratitude changes everything.”

But what is gratitude really, and what do we do with it anyway?

One understanding of gratitude, as understood in the field of positive psychology is that:

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.[1]

Gratitude is also engrained in our Jewish tradition.

Encoded in the habits of Jewish life is that we are to speak words of gratitude each day, from the very first moment we awaken.

We are meant to open our eyes and proclaim:

Modah ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’hechezarta bi’nishmati b’chemla rabbah emunatecha.

I am grateful before you, Source of life and sustenance, for returning my soul to me with compassion, your faithfulness to me is abundant.

The very first words on our lips: thank you!

And then, to continue in our day guided by the words and habits of Jewish life, we would proclaim blessing after blessing for each of the moments of an ordinary day which are in fact, miraculous.

Thank You God, for helping me to stand upright!

Thank You, for this body of mine, for my soul, for my breath, for the ability to think and discern, for the clothes I wear, and for the fact that I am free—and thank You for creating me in Your Divine Image.

Throughout our day, our tradition guides us to these habits of gratitude.

Just moments ago, in our T’fillah we offered the evening prayer of Hoda’ah-meaning Thanksgiving-- singing Hatov ki lo chalu rachamecha, v’hamracheim ki lo tamu chasadecha. “For the good in us, which calls us to a better life, we give thanks.”

Were we to move through even just one whole day of our lives, guided by the words and habits of our tradition, we would offer thanks more than one hundred times.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which I was always drawn to in our original Hevreh Shabbat siddur:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live…How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfil. It is gratefulness that makes the soul great.

I imagine gratitude like the fulcrum point of a scale:

On one end of the scale: despair. On the other, complacency.

Gratitude is that middle way: that act that helps us maintain the delicate balance between getting so comfortable that we don’t notice all that we have, and growing so uncomfortable that we don’t believe we have anything at all. In these uniquely challenging days, I know that sometimes finding that place where gratitude keeps us firmly rooted is difficult.

On the one hand: there is so much to despair. That sense of spiritual impoverishment alone is real: we miss our lives as we knew them, we miss our friends and family, we miss, we miss, we miss….

And on the other hand: how easy it is to grow complacent. To look at our lot in lives, and take it all for granted. To forget our own abundance. To stop noticing.

Tonight, I am acutely aware of just how important the ritual and the habits of gratitude are. On this Shabbat, as we anticipate Thanksgiving in the week ahead, perhaps gratitude is also on your mind. And given that this will be yet another holiday spent apart, perhaps you too are wrestling with how to access that sense of gratitude.

I am reminded of something I learned from my teacher and our community member, Maria Sirois, who teaches that there is always a “best part” of every day--- a moment in each and every day, even the very worst day of your life, that is worthy of gratitude.

Many of us are tired, many of us are alone.

Perhaps you are sitting here, feeling all of that grief and missing well up inside you, making you want to shout back at the screen, “But I don’t want to be grateful!”

And that would be ok, too.

Each of us are whole people: more than that total sum of our parts, and we have permission to be human.

But I want to invite you to try on this habit with me now, for a moment. If you’re comfortable- you can close your eyes. And I want you to review your day. Today.

Think about what happened when you woke up--- what did you do first? Did you speak to anyone? Look at your phone? Open a window?

Remember your morning: how did you nourish yourself? Did you drink hot coffee? Speak to a friend? Open the mail, go for a walk, or get in your car?

For another moment, I want you to remember your afternoon--- perhaps you did an errand or caught up on some chores. Maybe you did some cooking, or dealt with a task you had put off all week. Did you get outside? Did you drink enough water?

And now, in this last hour- as the sun set and the cool dark night set in—you found yourself here, with all of us.

Before you open your eyes, I want you to choose a moment out of your day that for you was the best one. It doesn’t have to be monumental, or remarkable in any way. For one person that best moment could be the way the air smelled when they went outside this morning, and for another, it could be life-changing good news.

What’s the moment? What did it feel like for you when you were in it?

Take a few seconds to bring up that image in your mind…

Now, I want you to memorize that feeling.

The best moment out of each day, are the ones that elicit appreciation, awe, contentment, generosity, wonder, and grace.

So now what: what do you do with that memorized feeling of the best part of your day?

You wake up tomorrow and keep that memory in your pocket, as if it were a shopping list reminding you what you are seeking today.

You use it.

You let it fuel you.

May each of us find moments in this week ahead that help us to balance with ease between despair and complacency.

May we find gratitude in the noticing of moments that fill us, and nourish us.

May we be gentle with ourselves, and reach out to one another across the distance with love and friendship.

Baruch Atah Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

Blesseed are You, Adonai, Your name is goodness and you are worthy of giving thanks.

[1] Emmons and McCullough.

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