Thanksgiving and Hanukkah on top of each other — gratitude is on our mind throughout the two holidays! But it shouldn’t stop there — how do we keep being thankful after the turkey leftovers are gone and we have eaten more latkes than we should have? In a great article from myjewishlearning.com, Jay Michaelson writes, “Remembrance of Kvetches Past — Remembering how we’ve suffered in the past helps us cultivate gratitude for the blessings we have right now.” He goes right to our Jewish holidays: On Passover, we remember how we kvetched in Egypt. On Tisha B’Av, we read the Book of Kvetches — actually Lamentations, but close enough. Even Hanukkah, initially a celebration of an unlikely military victory, became filled with stories of woe, like the tale of Hannah and her children, which made me cry in Hebrew school.
Yes, we do have a history of bad things happening but we also have our tradition of blessings and so much more to remind us of how fortunate we are. In Pirke Avot 4:1 the rabbis ask “who is rich?” The answer is a perfect reminder of gratitude — “a person who is thankful with his lot.” Michaelson also references the Buddhist teacher Thich Nahat Hanh, who once said that when you get over a toothache, you might experience relief for a day or two, but how many of us woke up today grateful for not having a toothache? There is value in remembering the suffering, but only to help us appreciate what we have and to push us to make things better. We have a double challenge — not only should we be grateful for what we have but we must find ways to help those who are struggling and can’t see the positive. Finding ways both big and small to ease the suffering is in our hands — we must open our eyes and look around. I wish I could say this is easy. There is much to be discouraged about, yet our tradition challenges us to take a step. In Pirke Avot 2:16, Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to desist from it.” We each have a part to play. Judaism is an action-based religion — “Just do it” should be attributed to a sage, not Nike (although who knows?).
Where do we start? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Great advice — open your eyes each day and say, “WOW!” (Actually we do it by saying Modeh Ani — I am thankful!) Try it!
Laura Seymour is Jewish Experiential Learning director and Camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.