Grateful, or Trying

November 20, 2023 in Israel, Rabbi Deborah Megdal

By Rabbi Deborah Megdal. 

Gratitude comes easily sometimes, pouring out of us in response to kindness, support, or lucky circumstance. Feeling and expressing this gratitude is a practice worthy of our continued effort and attention. The plethora of health and social benefits is well supported and widely known. 

But especially in these times of war in Israel and rising antisemitism in the United States, gratitude does not come so easily for everyone. However much we might wish to be thankful, robust gratitude might be out of reach for now. Knowing that some of us struggle, it is no surprise that so many Jewish teachings and customs center the practice of gratitude. 

From the very first words of our morning prayers, Modeh ani le’fanecha (“I give thanks before You”), we soon move into Birkot HaShachar, a list of blessings to thank God for meeting our basic needs, protecting us, and giving us strength. 

We imagine ourselves as the Israelites walking to freedom through the miraculously split sea, and so we sing the same Shirat HaYam (“Song of the Sea”) that they sang, including the refrain, Mi Chamocha: “Who is like You, among the mighty, Adonai?” (Exodus 15:11).

Two of our most boisterously sung prayers on Shabbat morning are alphabetical acrostics, El Adon and Ashrei—reminding us that gratitude need not be limited by our language. Any letter of the alphabet will suffice. Even if we struggle to find our own words, we have the neatly alphabetized lines on the pages of the siddur.

The Kaddish (in all its forms) is another form of a gratitude list. In this repetitive, mostly Aramaic prayer, we concede that our words are just a start — important, yet insufficient to capture the gratitude that we feel.

Our rabbinic tradition teaches us to strive to find ever more reasons to recite blessings. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir sets a goal of one hundred blessings every day (Menachot 43b). Even if one hundred is a placeholder for “a lot,” the takeaway is clear: Gratitude is fundamental to our Jewish language and culture.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we are fortunate to have a long, rich tradition of gratitude from which to draw comfort and inspiration. When we are grateful, and when we are trying to be grateful, our Judaism is here to guide us our path.