Gratitude Alone Is Not Enough

It’s Thanksgiving week, and in a few days we’ll sit down to our festive meals. Some families will say a prayer before they eat, some will go around the table and say what they’re grateful for, and some will simply dig in without saying anything formal. 

Gratitude is important. Not just at Thanksgiving, although it gets top billing at this time of year. But it’s only meaningful if it impels us to do something. At the very least, to express gratitude to someone else. Or, as do many of our prayers, express gratitude to God.

I taught a session on gratitude this week to a group of Jewish women who had traveled together to Israel this past summer. The criterion for going on the trip was having a child at home under the age of 18, and the goal was to engage them with Judaism, in the hope that they will pass their enthusiasm along to their kids.

I handed out folded pieces of paper, each with a participant’s name on the outside. Their task was to write an anonymous note to that woman, beginning with the words “You are a blessing because…” 

I’m not sure how much they’d actually thought about feeling grateful for one another beforehand. But when they got the assignment, not one hesitated. They each started writing immediately. It was easy, and clearly it made them happy to do it.

When they were done I collected the notes and we handed them out, so no one knew who had written to her. And I will tell you, watching their faces as they read the notes was wonderful. There were gasps of joy, tears, huge smiles. One woman clutched hers to her chest and said, “I’m framing this!”

After they were done, I asked them two questions: How did they feel when they wrote the note, and how did they feel when they received and read theirs.

Both experiences – giving and receiving – moved them deeply. Both were enormously gratifying. At the end of the evening, as we were leaving, I saw one woman walk up to another and say quietly, “I wrote your note,” and they embraced.

What I found most moving about that moment was watching the woman who’d written the blessing. She was overjoyed to have given the other person the gift of her gratitude.

And now, here’s the kicker – none of this matters if it doesn’t move them to do something. It’s just a feel-good moment.

For them to truly be a blessing in the world, they have to keep doing, keep striving to be their highest selves, keep reaching out to their families, their friends, their communities.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of interfaith work. And I’m learning something about my Christian colleagues in the clergy. They talk an awful lot about God’s love. We do too, in our tradition; in our services we first sing ahavat olam, a prayer about God’s love for us, and then we’ll chant the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism that simply states that God is God.

 And then immediately we sing the v’ahavta, “you shall love,” which declares that we are commanded to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength. And the prayer continues with the injunction that we are to observe all of God’s commandments and be holy to God.

In Judaism, God’s love is one part of the equation. Our love for God, and our actions in the world, are equally important, perhaps even more so. Because both receiving and giving blessings are essential.

My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager wrote: “The Jewish practice of blessing derives from our tradition’s desire to promote joy and appreciation, wonder and thankfulness, amazement and praise… It is in itself not at all strenuous…. It merely asks us to engage in a moment of delayed gratification, using the respite as an opportunity for something else to occur.” (from The Path of Blessing).

That moment of delayed gratification – when we stop to say motzi before taking the first bite – reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. My prayer is that it also reminds us that we have a role to play in the world.

Yes, God loves us. God has blessed us.

But we can not be passive recipients of that love and blessing. Our task is to step forward and be a blessing.

This is the sermon that I gave over to Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.