From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
One of the first rules we were taught as children was to say “please” and “thank you.” Most of us caught on quickly and never forgot it. Since ancient times, such simple courtesies were expected between people, but it was first modeled in the relationship between the Israelites and God. In Leviticus, sacred boundaries were maintained with daily offerings to express forgiveness, to make expiation, and especially to express thanksgiving and gratitude. Such offerings availed oneself and the community of God’s blessings and goodwill among the people.
As Jewish thought developed, the hope for a Messianic time emerged. The rabbis taught, “Though all sacrifices may be discontinued in the future [for in the messianic age, people will be sinless], the offering of thanksgiving will never cease.” On their journey and for as long as a Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Israelites brought sacrifices. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, prayers replaced sacrifices. So, the rabbis concluded, “Though all prayers may be discontinued [in a messianic time], the prayer of thanksgiving will never cease.”
Though we’re still far from a messianic time evidenced by strife and war in the world, we do live private lives that are relatively good. Our families have food, clothing, housing, and access to resources for education and healthcare. Our children have dreams for their future they intend to achieve. Thankfully, our good fortune is regularly reflected in acts of thanksgiving and gratitude with gifts and donations to the synagogue, the Jewish community, and numerous organizations and causes near and far. I am not personally aware of anyone who hasn’t expressed gratitude in one way or another.
Is there more we can do? Yes, there is. Daily mindfulness about our obligation to express thanksgiving would incline us to give without feeling burdened, to model gratitude for our families, and to aspire to give for the best reason.
Feeling burdened or nudged about giving is uncomfortable; it can make us feel defensive and miserly. Alternatively, giving for the sake of the mitzvah (good deed) and not the reward is its own reward. Such giving is also connected to our ancient ancestors who believed that such gifts created a system of reciprocity and potential blessing. For them it was a matter of faith and patience. Who’s to say that they were wrong?
Modeling gratitude for our families is crucial to a future filled with generosity. In my childhood home and in the home Lisa and I made with our family, our Shabbat table always included time for sharing what we were grateful for that week. Even in the face of a difficult week, gratitude oriented us to what we have and what is still possible. It also deepened our understanding of our purpose for gathering around the Sabbath table.
The best reason to give is to make a difference. And Maimonides (12th c) taught that the highest rung on a ladder of generosity is giving in such a way that the donors don’t know who the recipients are, and the recipients don’t know who the donors are. It’s a mode of giving that accomplishes the purpose without personal needs for recognition.
To be mindful of gratitude every day, consider these questions from a poem by John O’Donohue, “At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions”:
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
What reached me today? How did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
From the evidence — why was I given this day?
The Psalmist wrote, “This is the day that God has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” May the joy of every day be shared with those who seek joy in it, too. May we extend our hands and hearts to all with gratitude and thanksgiving.