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Modim Anachu Lach: moments of everyday gratitude

Rosh Hashanah Day II

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch

I’d like to tell you a story about one of my Israeli staff members named Snir. For those of you that I haven’t met, I am the rabbi and one of the directors at the Reform Movement’s Eisner Camp here in town.

It is a humid midsummer night. Snir Rozansky cautiously sits down next to me on a log by the upper fire pit. She hands me a perfectly roasted s’more, the marshmallow golden brown and oozing around the Hershey’s chocolate and graham cracker.

“Todah rabbah, Snir!” I say, “Thank you!”

“Rabbi Liz,” begins Snir, looking down as she says my name.

“Kein? Yes?” I reply. Snir is one of our nature counselors in our Teva program. She is a member of the mishlachat, the delegation of over 40 young staff members who join us from Israel each summer. It is her first summer with us, and I have already seen Snir learn and grow during the few weeks she has spent at camp.

“Rabbi Liz, I need to apologize for something. I made a mistake and I was embarrassed to talk with you.”

Bracing myself for whatever she might share next – believe me, I’ve heard it all – I open my heart. “Thank you for coming to me, Snir. You can always tell me anything and we’ll figure it out together.”

“Maybe you already know. You heard that I messed up the words for Mourner’s Kaddish last week, yes? You could tell I said it wrong?”

Ahhh, I think. Yes. Two days ago was Yom Yisrael, Israel Day, our special day to celebrate Israel at camp. The Israeli staff work hard to create engaging programming to share a slice of Israeli life and culture with all of camp. At the end of the day, they lead us in an all camp evening service.

“Snir,” I say, “You are so brave, and I am so proud of you. Every summer, the Israelis come to camp and want to share Israel with all of the American staff and campers, and you always do it so beautifully. And each year, Yom Yisrael ends with an incredible t’filah that you lead for all of camp. But do you know what’s so amazing about that? During Yom Yisrael and throughout the summer, you share Israel with us. But when you lead us in t’filah, you show us what you have learned from American Reform Jews. Did you ever think in your life you would stand up in front of 1000 people and read Kaddish Yatom? And of course, I know that Mourner’s Kaddish is not in Hebrew, it’s in Aramaic – so it’s not your native language. I am so proud of you for standing up and trying something new.”

A wave of relief washes over Snir’s face. She cracks a smile. “When I told my parents I messed up the prayer I was crying. ‘Good,’ they said, ‘You should cry when you say Kaddish.’”

Grinning at the typical Israeli sarcasm, I give Snir a hug and thank her again. “No,” says Snir. “Thank you for the chance to do that. Thank you for the chance to learn something new.”

That moment really shaped my view of the impact that camp can have on our Israeli staff. Maybe Snir will find a Reform Jewish community when she returns to Israel and engage with her Judaism in a whole new way. Maybe not, but she was forever changed by her summer with us, particularly through her opportunity as a secular woman to lead us in prayer, a much rarer occurrence in Israel.

What’s more, she taught me so much about gratitude.

When we live our lives oriented toward gratitude, we are thankful for all kinds of moments – the pleasant, the challenging, and even the unpleasant. We can learn to appreciate every moment for the gift it represents, and our interactions with each other take on new depth and meaning.

Rabbi Hirsch and I are the very proud parents of Lior, who is seven months old this weekend. As a new parent, there are endless moments of gratitude – so many of them are pleasant, and yes, some of them are not! For over a year now, I’ve been studying with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. We’ve been exploring how to sit with all kinds of moments – moments that are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Parenthood offers the full array. There is nothing more pleasant than Lior’s first smile in the morning, than making him laugh, than watching him learn something new. And there are certainly those neutral moments – nap time, hour three of playtime on the rug, and an occasional late night car trip to attempt to lull him to sleep. Finally, I have learned to sit with the unpleasant moments – when Lior is crying and there is nothing I can do to get him to stop, when nothing in the world will convince him to go to sleep and I’m about to fall over myself with exhaustion.

By using this gratitude practice – by reveling in those over the moon pleasant moments, and also learning to acknowledge the neutral and the unpleasant, our pleasant moments taste so much sweeter. We can remove the boredom from our neutral moments – waiting in line at the grocery store, doing the dishes – by naming them as such, they are simply a part of the fabric of life. Finally, the most challenging task – to open our hearts to the unpleasant moments – fighting with a family member, an illness or operation, losing a loved one. Easier said than done, right? In her book, Nurturing the WOW, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg relates this story about Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi. “Why, [his] student asked, does [the V’ahavta prayer] say to place “these words” -that is, the commandment to love the divine – “upon your heart.” Why not place the words in our hears? The Kotzker Rebbe answered, “So often, our hearts are closed. When we place these words upon – on top – of them, they will stay there until one day, our heart breaks, and the words fall in.” There are truths – experiences of the transcendent, capacities for love — that are only available to us when our hearts are broken open. When we’re determined to stay on lockdown and not feel the hard feelings we keep all that light at bay.”

Although I sense God’s presence in all of my interactions, living in what Martin Buber called the I-Thou space between two people who are really connecting, my conversation with Snir and my interactions with Lior are generally what we would call moments that are bein adam l’chavero – between one person and another, literally, his friend, his haver, the same root as Hevreh. A common concept around the High Holidays is that for sins we have committed against others – bein adam l’chavero – we need to go out and ask forgiveness. For sins we commit against God – bein adam l’Makom – our prayers throughout the ten days of awe and particularly on Yom Kippur will atone for us.

The flip side of this requirement to atone during the High Holidays is cultivating these relationships – bein adam l’chavero and bein adam l’Makom – throughout the year. I think the secret ingredient to positive relationships between people and between people and God is gratitude.

Camp moves so quickly each summer – in a blink of an eye, the campers have come and gone. Each summer, we set the tone for the kind of community we want to create together in our first few days. On the first two full days of camp, we orient ourselves toward gratitude. Instead of our regular Jewish education curriculum, every camper in camp learns about a concrete opportunity for gratitude that happens three times a day – our blessing after meals, Birkat Hamazon. Previously, we had rushed through Birkat Hamazon, mumbling the words that carried little meaning. Now, campers take time to learn the meaning of the words and engage in activities that help them articulate their gratitude for the food they eat. They learn to express their gratitude bein adam l’chavero by meeting members of our kitchen staff – and I mean really meeting them. Small groups of campers get to know individual members of the kitchen staff, asking them questions about their lives, their homes, their families, their interests, the country that they are from. This simple interaction at the beginning of the summer has created a radical culture change at camp – when campers walk through the serving line in the dining hall, they look up, smile, and say thank you to the kitchen staff members. This gratitude between people, this acknowledgement and positivity, has spread out to all of the interactions between every person around camp. As if it were possible to make camp even better – we found a way to do it!

What’s more, after meeting our kitchen staff members, campers write their own creative Birkat Hamazon, inspired by things they are grateful for, and and understanding of the true process that enables food to appear on their plates. Each morning, after breakfast, we share one of these blessings as our creative Birkat Hamazon.

“To the One who created us all, thank you. To those who created, cared for, and brought the food, thank you. To the ground that was watered by the farmer, thank you. To the driver that drove the food to Great Barrington, thank you. To those who prepared the meal, thank you. I appreciate all the people that helped to bring us food.”

Through this process, campers express gratitude bein adam l’chavero, recognizing the role of farmers, truck drivers and kitchen staff, and bein adam l’Makom, recognizing the role of God in sustaining them. Our youngest campers will spend the rest of the summer in their age group’s Jewish education curriculum engaging with God, and we’ve found them more comfortable and fluid in their expressions of gratitude toward God.

Today, we read about the creation of the world, the very beginning of everything we know. There is a familiar and repeated pattern to this retelling – we hear what element of the world God has created, there was evening, there was morning, a first day. There was evening, there was morning, a second day. There is one other element that appears in this text – vayar Elohim ki tov – and God saw that it was good. However, this phrase of acknowledgement and gratitude does not appear every day. Some of God’s days and God’s creations are ki tov – good. At the end of creation, we have an extra special, extra pleasant day – vayar elohim et kol asher asah v’hinei tov m’od – God looked at everything God had created and it was VERY good! But on some days, we don’t see this phrase – just there was evening, there was morning, a second day – no ki tov. Does this mean that God was displeased with the results of day two or day five? Hardly. Those days might have just been a little more neutral for God, rather than the pleasantness of the other days.

We are all allowed to have days and moments that are pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant. Working within this framework, we learn to acknowledge the good, experience the ordinary, and get more comfortable with the uncomfortable. We are able to feel a greater sense of gratitude in our lives, to say Modim anachnu lach, we gratefully acknowledge you, O God, and every person you have created.


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