Gratitude beyond the calendar

Being grateful is not always an easy state to generate or to acknowledge. So, how do we begin to cultivate it? Well, some might say that we need to put it on our schedule . . . or, do we?

In truth, the most obvious holiday in the month of November seems to have, at best, only an unintentional connection to do with Judaism and Jewish culture. Thanksgiving, which I’ve often referred to as our “civic Passover” given its similarities in both ritual and meaning to our Z’man heruteinu, our Season/ Holiday of Freedom, was fashioned as a reminder to offer thanks in the midst of our challenging lives. Thanksgiving allows us to look back at our lives and the recent “seasons of doing” (spring and summer) and be reminded of how far we have come. After all, despite its very irregular observance after our nation’s founding, the intent behind its formalized adherence as a holiday within the American civil calendar, was to help create a positive cultural touchstone in the midst of the backdrop of our nation’s tragic and bloody Civil War.

Thank God — let me repeat that — thank God nearly all of us don’t have a clue what it would mean to find ways to be thankful in the midst of a complete upending of every aspect of our culture, society, family, and individual lives. Of course, the last few years have left many of us with heartrending losses and continued health challenges — whether due to aging or to illness — that have been enough for us to make feeling thankful a challenge of its own.

And yet, there is something within the Jewish psyche that guides us toward giving thanks in the midst of personal and societal challenges, even truly testing ones. Life disruption and tragedy are no stranger to the Jewish community of our ancestors or even for us today (I think it’s fair to say that most of us have found some recent headlines quite disturbing). Yet, we have inherited and practice a spiritual regimen that promotes being appreciative no matter what the circumstance.

There is even Jewish religious precedent that is reflected in our personal experiences and responses to our life’s challenges: As participants in Jewish religious services, we recite or sing prayers that reflect a deep appreciation for the blessings bestowed upon us individually and communally. Whether reinforced by regular religious practice or not, Jews are believers in gratitude.

If this is not enough, let me provide you a “selfish reason” to be grateful: A recent study of studies has reinforced again the importance of fostering an “attitude of gratitude.” Right at the top of the list of reasons given for sustained and meaningful happiness was the practice of gratitude and its accompanying beneficiary, the act of offering loving-kindness to others. This is a central focus of a regular mindfulness meditation practice — mindfulness has much in common with our fulfillment of the Jewish religious directive to remain cognizant of the blessings we receive. Even in our most universally recited prayer, the Kaddish, we do not focus on loss but rather we emphasize praise and appreciation of our blessings received in a Divine flow from its source to each one of our souls.

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, let us consider expanding our practice of appreciation beyond whatever level we cultivate within us and display from us. We needn’t make light of or ignore our losses or diminishment so understandably felt and/or experienced by also allowing for the space to feel and express our appreciation for the blessings in our lives. Many of us were taught rightfully that grieving is an essential part of a healthy life’s arc, but let us not forget the good that being grateful does for our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. And, given its central importance to our very existence, we would be wise to practice gratitude beyond a specific moment in our calendar.

As we look forward, let us remind ourselves that we have so much to be thankful for in the way of our family, congregational community, Jewish community, civic community, and beyond; without our lifting up others and their lifting us up, so much we face might feel or even be impossible for us.

May we be blessed with that precious spiritual pause that allows us to regain our footing, and may we offer others this comfort that helps our neighbor to find gratitude and to live their lives with a generous portion of happiness, as well.

Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, NJ. Rabbi Fox also serves as the Past President of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors. This article also appears in Temple Beth Shalom’s November newsletter.

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