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Awakening to the Light

In some thoughts for the New Year, Rabbi Jennifer Krause shows us that rediscovering gratitude, “an unsung hero in Jewish life,” can help pierce the gloom of a darkening world.

By Rabbi Jennifer Krause

In a dive bar last summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Rhett Miller, the frontman for Texas-based band the Old 97’s, play as a solo act. With nothing but a six-string in hand, Miller began the evening’s set with a tune called “My Valentine.” But “My Valentine” was no more about long-stemmed red roses and heart-shaped Russell Stover boxes than that dank watering hole was a lounge at The Four Seasons. When he crooned, “Laughter and wartime is a beautiful song,” I got goosebumps—my surefire way of knowing when something resonates with me as emes, truth.

I thought about the world as it was in that very moment: Several years into two wars and possibly on the brink of another, my inbox was flooded with dire-sounding e-mails (“Did you know your investments may be funding genocide?” “Urgent Conference Call for Burma: In the Aftermath of the Disaster”), rendering me helpless and wondering how, or if, it was possible to make a difference. The usual barrage of local and global bad news included the burial of captured soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in Israel while a brutal terrorist enjoyed a hero’s welcome in Lebanon, alive and well. As I sat in that roomful of strangers, I sensed that Miller’s lyrics meant something to us all, connected as we were through a burden of fears and uncertainties in a world growing darker each day. That night, Miller caught a human experience in his music like a firefly in a jar, and described how something as simple and potentially commonplace as laughing has the capacity to cast a miraculous glow against the gloomiest of backgrounds, how a reflex we might otherwise take for granted can fill us with gratitude when it seems there is precious little to praise. It all depends on how awake we are, on how ready we are to listen.

As a concept, gratitude tends to be an unsung hero in Jewish life—not often what we remember learning in Hebrew school. Yet, giving thanks is an integral part of Judaism’s daily rhythm. As a matter of fact, I remain struck every time I hear one of our tradition’s “greatest hits,” the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir’s teaching that a person should say one hundred blessings a day. Now, Rabbi Meir didn’t state that we should utter one hundred blessings on a good day, but rather every day. Because the sages were savvy guys (and back then, the ones who got air time were all guys!), I’m guessing Rabbi Meir understood that not every day was a banner one and that the ordinary business of living was tough. I’m also fairly certain he’d done the math and knew that even someone saying all the scripted blessings in the fixed daily prayer rituals couldn’t reach that century mark without a little ingenuity. Tooffer the challenge he did, Rabbi Meir had to intuit that cultivating a personal awareness of all of life’s experiences, from the common to the sublime, would be the only way to experience that much gratitude each day.

While surely I fail to hit the Rabbi Meir quota more often than not, I do believe that making the attempt to identify and praise those things for which we are grateful transforms how we see ourselves and the world around us, no matter the circumstances. I’ve discovered that using a few gratitude “cues,” key phrases and ideas drawn from inherited Jewish wisdom, supports the effort.

When I wake up each morning, before I lift my head from the pillow and way before coffee, the words “modah ani—I thank you” are on my lips. This simple prayer, another ancient gift from our ancestors, expresses our gratitude for another day and the new beginning it brings. To me, one of the most beautiful and daring things about the prayer is that it does not acknowledge our belief in God, but God’s belief in us: “Rabah emunatecha,” we say, “Your faith in our possibilities is unbounded.” When I speak these words, I remind myself that every time I open my eyes to greet another day, I receive a multitude of chances to do, learn and be more. But this awareness needn’t be limited to the morning hours, particularly if caffeine is your prerequisite for speech! Any time you can pause and give thanks for the prospect that the best is yet to come is a modah ani moment.

While being grateful for what’s ahead brings us hope, gratitude for what’s already in our midst proves a far more difficult, and easily forgotten, task. When I’m so fixated on what’s next that I’m overlooking what is, I rely on another gratitude model derived from a Jewish approach to—what else?—eating. And that’s where those rabbis of old continue to come to the rescue. Their instinct that we’re more able to offer heartfelt thanks after we’ve eaten than when we’re too ravenous to think straight predates a recently documented scientific phenomenon by thousands of years: “hanger.” A combination of hunger and anger, “hanger” occurs when we need to eat and our serotonin levels plummet. It’s the reason why, when I’ve skipped breakfast, worked through lunch and am waiting in line at the diner, I not only feel like I’ll die if I don’t get my grilled cheese sandwich, but that I might take a few innocent bystanders along with me! That’s why Hamotzi, the official opening blessing for any complete meal, is a one-liner, whereas Birkat Hamazon (the Grace after Meals) is several paragraphs long.
One of those paragraphs begins with the phrase, “Nodeh lecha —we thank you.” Yet, why not take this awareness beyond the table, using it to focus on what we already have, instead of waiting until things like illness, a close call, war or personal hardship bring us face-to-face with what we have and what we could have lost? Finding gratitude when we’re sated can help us feel less deprived, and sometimes even highlights that we have as much as, if not more than, we need. In this way, any time we take stock of what’s readily in our midst is a nodeh lecha moment.

But what to do in those dark times when it seems impossible to find a reason to be grateful? Even then, there is a way to offer thanks. The Amidah, the pinnacle feature of daily, Sabbath and holiday worship, contains a prayer (one of my favorites) that begins with the words, “modim anachnu lach—we are grateful to You.” This gratitude-infused paragraph details the ways in which miracles surround us morning, afternoon and evening. When I say this prayer, I imagine someone I know who’s just received great news. Or, I think of a stranger—a soldier reuniting with her family, a father who’s learned he’s cancer-free and will live to walk his daughter to her wedding canopy, a woman delivering a healthy baby after years of infertility treatments—and remind myself that no matter how bad things may be or seem from my own vantage point, that someone, somewhere, is truly, viscerally thanking God, certain in the knowledge that the universe is a place of wonder, joy and abundance. When we find ourselves in a modim anachnu lach moment, we can be grateful for our connection to each other, be happy for one another—strangers and neighbors alike—and be thankful that we don’t all give up hope at the same time.

Prayers of Gratitude

(Adapted by Rabbi Jennifer Krause from the daily prayer book)

For a New Day
Modah/modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, she’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah. Rabah emunatecha.
I thank you, living and enduring Sovereign, for compassionately returning my soul to me. Your faith is boundless.
[ “Modah” would be uttered by a woman, and “modeh” by a man.]

For Overcoming the Odds
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, ha’notein la’yaeyf koach.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who grants strength to the weary.

For All That You Have
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, she’asah li kol tzorki.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of the Universe, who has granted me all that I need.

For Reaching a Special Moment
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, shehecheyanu v’kimanu v’higiyanu laz’man ha’zeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.

For Learning Something New
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’divrei torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who grants us opportunities to set our lives apart by engaging in perpetual learning.

It was, in fact, a modim anachnu lach moment that helped me see that not all the news in the world was bad. That same night I heard Rhett Miller sing, I’d just read a New York Times interview with Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate held hostage by rebels for more than six years in a jungle prison. Just one week after her release, Betancourt spoke of that horrible experience and described her surprising discovery of what she called “the magic of all things” during that time. “You can have the dark side of man,” she said, “but you can also plug yourself to light and be an enormous light to others. And I think that’s what being spiritual means.”

Betancourt’s arresting wake-up call as a prisoner called to mind the psalm we traditionally sing after the shofar—our High Holy Day wake-up call—has sounded: “Happy are the people who truly know the teruah—the blast; they walk in the light of Your presence” (Psalm 89:16). Traditionally teruah, one type of note the shofar emits (in addition to tekiah, shevarim and various combinations thereof), is a battle cry, most notably in the Book of Joshua. During the siege of Jericho, the teruah brings the walls of the city tumbling to the ground and raises the Israelites’ spirits. Surely as we endeavor to do the season’s work of teshuvah—of turning to face ourselves and returning to the world with renewed strength, purpose and vision—the secret language of the shofar has a unique way of raising our spirits, stirring us to action and plugging us into the light.

Our awakening at this awesome time of year is so essential that the Torah and our High Holy Day prayers also refer to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Teruah—The Day of the Blast. Even as we enter this New Year with so much weighing on our hearts and minds, the teruah can be a battle cry of a different kind. For if the teruah has the power to make embattled city walls turn to rubble, it can help us tear down the walls of our frustration, our cynicism, our exhaustion and even our rock-solid insistence that the world is—that we are—broken beyond repair. That blast has the power to topple the barrier that keeps us from seeing what’s right, not only what’s wrong. If we can hear that blast, in part, as a call to find our gratitude, to locate and celebrate all that for which we have cause to give thanks, we might also find the energy and the will to confront the lengthy to-do list that our own lives and the state of the world place at our feet. Without gratitude to fill our spirits, we’re left with a bunch of breast-beating that leaves us hollow, depleted and dismayed, and sadly unable to grasp the treasure these Days of Awe place before us; namely, the chance for renewal and spiritual resuscitation. An opportunity to breathe and start over again.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that before those inimitable blasts pierce the fresh air of a New Year, we say, “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, shehecheyanu v’kimanu v’higiyanu laz’man ha’zeh—Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.”

We say and sing the Shehecheyanu, the ultimate gratitude prayer, many times during the year: when we kindle the first lights of Chanukah, dedicate a new home by affixing a mezuzah, taste the first, crisp bite of a just-picked fall apple, or put on a new piece of clothing. Each time we’re in the presence of a shehecheyanu moment, just as we are called to do by the shofar at this time of year dedicated to awakenings, we rise to the occasion of living by uttering the simplest, sweetest, yet most unmistakably powerful battle cry there is: “Thank you.” We do so knowing that sometimes (maybe more often than we’d like), just as Miller also sang on that warm summer’s night, “you gotta coax it out.”

Rabbi Jennifer Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time. Her work and commentary have been featured in Newsweek, US News and World Report, Allure and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the Marvin and Edward Kaplan Lecturer in Jewish Studies at The City College of New York and serves as rabbi for the High Holidays at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

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