2014-11-26 / Voice at the Shore

A Thanksgiving blessing: gratitude without fear

By RABBI GERALD R. FOX For the Voice at the Shore

When is the last time you cried? Even if you don’t cry that often, you probably can recall when you shed a tear and why without much effort. Now, consider when you last expressed a robust appreciation of the blessings in your life (aside from organized prayer). I bet you’re finding it difficult to recall. We often worry about crying in front of others, but in fact, we are probably more uncomfortable with expressing a deep appreciation to someone else, particularly when other people are present. It is very hard for us to allow ourselves to feel the kind of vulnerability that our reliance on others brings forth, but there is a significant reward in doing so.

Giving thanks. Being grateful. Feeling appreciation. Experiencing gratitude. This is the intersection between Judaism and Thanksgiving.

As we approach that most quintessential holiday of the American civic faith, Thanksgiving, let us consider, “gratitude.” Sometimes it is easy to experience, and sometimes less so. For many reasons, raising up my experience of gratitude has been on my mind this year. I have been thinking about how grateful I am to have so many blessings in my life: some measure of good health, a fine family, a few true friends, and a life with a purpose that involves helping others every day.

Some of you might feel a bit twitchy over my acknowledging my blessings, for fear that somehow they will be taken from me (perhaps you think that I should say, “puh, puh, puh,” to ward off bad fortune). It’s true that some of the blessings in my life might disappear, but it won’t be because I am appreciative of them. Quite the opposite: Jewish tradition teaches, and I believe, that it is very important to acknowledge what we have as often as possible. After all, an important part of our achieving great things in life involves acknowledging our blessings. In so doing, we usually realize that things are far better than they seem, and it is that confidence, that grounding, that becomes the finger pressing on the scale of our success.

The holiday of Thanksgiving centers on a ritual feast symbolically displaying the bounty of our lives. It is a public experience to be shared with others. And yet, the feast itself is just a symbol. It cannot have real meaning without our internal awareness of being blessed. Thanksgiving thus provides us with an opportunity to examine our lives.

Let’s make this personal: I have lately been asking myself whether I should be grateful to have achieved only a portion of what I had wished to achieve by this age when I was in my teens and 20s. This is a reasonable question that each of us asks ourselves, and a particularly appropriate one to ask in connection with Thanksgiving. The answer to this question is found when we reframe the question, when we realize that plans change, and that each of us—as individuals and across our lifespan— are actually projects. Like the complex Lego-block structures created by my four-yearold twin sons, each of us takes on new purposes and meanings over time. It is in appreciating each new plan, each new iteration of ourselves, that we may find gratitude.

Our openness to feeling a spirit of gratitude sometimes comes in very unusual ways. For example, we recently had a sukkah-decorating party for my twin sons, who just celebrated their fourth birthday. Preparing for this party, which we held in our backyard, was difficult and stressful. Yet during a relatively quiet moment at the party, looking at everyone and everything going on around me, I felt a sense of calm that I was in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude. I was grateful.

And so I offer this teaching. Within gratitude, it is true that a fear of relying on others may be found, but what waits for us is even more powerful. When we acknowledge that we have been blessed, we acknowledge that we are noticed; in so doing, our connectedness becomes a holy exchange. Don’t get me wrong, we are worthy without this affirmation, but Judaism clearly declares that there is holiness when we engage in connecting with another person. And who doesn’t gain some spiritual nourishment by being reminded that we are important, especially when considering the vastness of the Universe?

So, as we approach Thanksgiving, whether shared with a crowd or more quietly, let us remember that we are not diminished by appreciating those things that can be taken from us in a single moment. Rather, let us cherish our greatness that arises from our ability to appreciate each precious moment, each treasured element, of our existence.

May you find a path to cultivating a sense of gratitude as a true blessing in this life, and in so doing, increase the fulfillment, joy, and purpose, in your life. .

Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the Rabbi for Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine and President of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors.

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