What if the miracle was there always was enough,… and in their anxiety, those who saw the oil saw its meagerness instead of its abundance?
“Things are good”
So said one of the participants in last week’s Jewish Wisdom For Coping with a Pandemic gathering. We were focused on Truth, and with a partner, we tried to look at the Truth of our lives, with an eye out for what is good.
She acknowledged that she had not touched another human being for months because of the pandemic, and that she missed her community. Yet she was ok and could do what she needed to from her home. The realization was on empowering for her, and an inspiration for all of us. (You can see it here).
As we approach Thanksgiving, there are invited to look for the good in our lives. 2020 has been one of the hardest and saddest of my life. I lost my mother to Covid, and yet I’ve tried not to lose the whole year. There have been real moments of joy, community and connection.
This Thanksgiving, will you join me in taking the 15 minute Gratitude challenge? Carve out 15 minutes for yourself, and sit with a journal or a piece of paper. Start a timer, and write down everything in your life that you are grateful for. When I first did this in 2016, it was absolutely transformative. Before I started, I reviewed some key teachings about Gratitude that helped me a great deal.
Mussar teaches that Gratitude is the ability to recognize the good in any situation, and to give thanks. Thus, we are enjoined to be grateful for both good and bad things that happen to us. The latter can be a challenge. For example, when we are in shock over unexpectedly losing our job, and the mortgage payment is coming due, it may be hard to feel grateful. With the fullness of time we may end up with a better job, or being home may allow us to reconnect with our friends and family. Thus, in the moment, we can be grateful that we have an opportunity to spend our time doing other things. In addition, Mussar teaches us to be grateful for inanimate things. For example, right now I am Grateful to the nice lazy boy that supports me in comfort as I write to you. Not only that, I nap regularly in this chair with a cat on my lap.
In the 11th century Mussar classic Duties of the Heart, Rabbi ibn Paquda teaches that there are three things that keep us from being grateful.
- We become too occupied with material things. For example, we want the very latest iPhone, and forget how useful the version we already have is.
- We take things for granted. Here, we fail to recognize the bounty of everyday blessings, like a comfortable bed, a safe neighborhood, and being alive.
- We focus on the negative. We tend to focus on mistakes people make, and the small hurts we receive from loved ones, and don’t notice the positives they do for us.
Before you start, write the three barriers to gratitude at the top of your paper. Then write down the three categories of things we should be grateful for. As a reminder they are:
- Good things
- Bad things (by finding the good in them)
- Inanimate things
Then, start the clock and write your list of things to be grateful for. As you are working on your list, try to overcome each of the objections, and remember to write down things in each of the categories to be grateful for. Don’t stop writing until the timer reaches 15 minutes. Some people find it very hard to write for the entire time. Frankly, this is what I expected to happen to me the first time I tried it.
In contrast, I was quite amazed to discover that at 15 minutes, I wasn’t done. I kept writing for another ten minutes! In those final minutes, I started to feel a sense of calm, peace, and fulfillment. I was amazed, because prior the the exercise I was feeling a bit restless and fretful. When I was done, I was filled with energy and confidence. I still feel the residue of the experience a day later.
So did that change my life? Heck Yah! Even had I only felt those positive feelings for part of a day, that in itself is life changing. Yes, making your today better is life changing. And I have the opportunity to keep making my today better each and every day. Beyond that, I know that I filled almost four pages in my journal of things to be grateful for. When I have such abundance in my life, it is hard to worry about even the big things that can be overwhelming. May this wealth of things to be grateful for give me strength and help me through these challenging times.
So, do you agree that 15 minutes of Gratitude could change your life?
Will you join me? Comment below me and let me know how it goes.
Ready to start your own Mussar journey? Take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz now.
An earlier version of this post was published in January 2016 and again in December 2018.
In 2004 Rabbi Janet Marder at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos sent shockwaves through the Jewish world by blessing the non-Jewish spouses who were members of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The message was clear: Cherish your non-Jewish partner.
Rabbi Marder said, “What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.” You can read the entire blessing here.
The blessing took place a few years before my family joined that congregation, and people were still talking about it. At the time, my wife was not Jewish and we picked Beth Am because the website was covered with welcoming messages, and our makeup is diverse – interfaith, same sex, intercultural marriages abound. We felt comfortable and welcomed. But it didn’t mean that there weren’t issues, issues that I was insensitive to.
I now understand how much I took my wife’s decision to embrace raising a Jewish family for granted. When I went back and read the blessing today, the following passage really struck me. “You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language.”
As I have written before, I am uncomfortable when people use Hebrew phrases that I don’t know. How much more difficult it must be for people who did not grow up Jewish. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really put it together, I did not put myself in her shoes.
Rabbi Marder’s blessing from 16 years ago also reminds me how Mussar can help strengthen relationships, by helping us recognize and cherish the differences in the other. To be clear, I think it is particularly important to cherish the differences, because despite those differences, our partner chooses to be with us.
Mussar, particularly American Mussar, offers an opportunity offers intermarried couples an opportunity to share Jewish values in everyday life without needing to know Hebrew or traditional ritual practice. Being a good person is the essence of being Jewish, and Mussar offers a roadmap to bring our everyday actions into alignment with our aspirational values. Here are three soul traits that can help us cherish our non-Jewish partner.
Honor Rabbi Marder was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor, in that she was going out of her way to Honor the Divine spark in others, when they are different from us. We can practice Honor by asking our partner how they are doing, and if they are uncomfortable or struggling with any part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Work to make them feel more comfortable.
Gratitude – I did not sufficiently appreciate my wife for agreeing to raise a Jewish family. Take my advice, say thank you, and go out of your way to show your Gratitude by being sensitive and inclusive. The person you are with wants to be included, and understandably may be struggling. As Rabbi Marder said, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
Order – Don’t just assume that your non-Jewish partner has to do all the child care or food preparation. When the kids were little, I often left it to my wife to take them out so I didn’t have to miss any of the service. Offer them an opportunity to participate in services and take your turn bringing the kids outside if they start to act up. And do some planning, to find an activity that the whole family can do together. For example, after services, plan to get together with a large group of friends.
Moses said, “I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This is a choice we all have every day. The reality is that you have someone in your life who care about you, but is really different. It might be an intermarriage, but there are other ways to be different. You might both be Jewish, but one of you is apathetic or unenthusiastic. Or you may share the same religion, but one of you is a vegan, or god forbid, a someone who supports the other political party.
You can choose to ignore the differences, and allow them to be a source of conflict or pain. Or, you can choose to make them a blessing, and go out of your way to connect despite your differences.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are given an opportunity to really look at those relationships, to make amends for our mistakes, and decide to do better in the future.
Want to start your own Mussar journey? Click here to take the free Soul Trait Profile Quiz now
Image Credit: Rosh Hashanah by Lilach Daniel via Flickr CC
I often get signals from the universe when I am embarking on the right soul trait, and the upcoming Enthusiasm practice is no exception. This weekend someone asked a question on the Enthusiasm practice page about the following passage from Proverbs 24:
“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest-and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”
It reminded me of a mantra I created for myself when I was younger: “Too much is never enough.” I liked to live 100% all the time. I was studying, working, dancing,, partying. Something had to be going on all the time. Is it a wonder that I became workaholic? There is never a right time for that mantra – it nearly led to disaster in my life.
As Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot 4:1 “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with their portion.” All this go go go was to distract myself from low self esteem. When I became content with who I was, I recognized the abundance in my life and let go of the “always on” lifestyle.
Today when practicing Enthusiasm, I much prefer the mantra “Run to do good.” Yes, we want to proactively look for ways to make the world a better place. But it does not say “Always run to do good.” There are times when we need to rest and recover.
The Jewish holidays offer a great opportunity to slow down, look within, and allow yourself to recover. With that in mind, I’m going to cancel the Jewish Wisdom For Coping with a Pandemic gatherings on September 17, 24 and October 1st go give myself time for rest, recovery and a little more grief work.
What is it that you will focus on during the High Holidays? Is this a time for you to put some things on pause? Reply below – I’d love to know.
What do you need to park right now in order to be present for the next hour?