The earthquake in Haiti really got me thinking. I donated to relief work — that was a given. Yet I find myself glued to news broadcasts, watching the reports of the dreadful situation and the efforts being made to reach out to the survivors. Seeing this over and over makes me realize all we take for granted in our lives. I am looking for a Jewish way to express my feelings of gratitude and appreciation. I would be less than honest if I said that thankfulness has been part of my practice. It has not. This earthquake has become a wakeup call for me — a very graphic one. I suddenly feel so grateful for everything I have been taking for granted. Are there Jewish prayers or meditations to express what I’m feeling?
It’s natural to feel a rush of emotions after watching the scenes of the suffering brought about by the earthquake: outrage at a world seemingly so unfair, insecurity about the vicissitudes of life, and frustration at the reality of the weak Haitian infrastructure. Gratitude for what one has is a remarkable and important response. It has not been easy to stay tuned. Averting the eyes is a much more comfortable stance. Your immediate feelings of gratitude are natural; your sustained focus on them is lofty.
Jewish prayers and blessings of gratitude abound. Here are 10 practical options. Perhaps one or two among them will resonate. They are alternatively blessings, declarations or psalms. It would be helpful to find a prayer book that you are comfortable with and to peruse it for these meaningful languages of gratefulness.
1. Morning Gratitude: The traditional “Modeh ani” is recited each day, moments after waking. It expresses an immediate appreciation for being alive. Quite the tone-setter for the new day.
2. Health Gratitude: Sometimes known as the “bathroom” blessing, this articulates a daily recognition of the miracle of health. Our inner school-kid and giggles notwithstanding, here is what Dr. Kenneth Prager writes about this powerful blessing in the May 1997 Journal of American Medicine: “Over the years, reciting the asher yartzar has become for me an opportunity to offer thanks not just for the proper functioning of my excretory organs, but for my overall good health.” If you have a chance, look up his article online — it’s worth it!
3. Soulful Gratitude: Revealed in this daily prayer is the Jewish affirmation of the purity of the soul and the negation of any smattering of predetermination. Lord, the soul that you have given is pure… A reflection of our belief in free will and self-determination, it is an optimistic declaration that we enter this world not merely with a blank slate, but with a pure soul. Now that is a head start to be thankful for!
4. Natural Gratitude: Psalm 104 is magnificent. It proclaims with gusto an unabashed, breathtaking amazement with the natural world: “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy creatures.”
5. Grocery Gratitude: By now you have probably noticed there are blessings to be said before eating. You have surely heard the most well-known, the motzi, the blessing for bread, recited at a community event or a family celebration. There is a rich array of blessings specific to different kinds of drinks, fruits, vegetables or cakes. They are general and reflect the source of the food: “Blessed is God…Creator of fruit of the earth, the tree or the vine.”
The specificity moves us to appreciate the delicate delectable nuance of each and every victual. Reciting these is a discipline of gratitude and a courageous act of deliberate mindfulness that is a sure antidote to thanklessness. My advice? Look up these blessings and try them out for size. Could habitual bracha-making work for you? If the leap is too great to commit to a blessing for every food, try to simply say a blessing over food once a day. Then notice where this presence of mind leads you.
6. Full-Belly Gratitude: It’s one thing to remember the Creator of food on an empty belly — that’s almost a given. Our hunger leads the way to appreciation. But once the appetite is sated the norm is to fall onto the couch of satisfied stupor. No, no, no! Our tradition tells us that when the belly is full, it is time to offer a follow-up renewed thank you, that’s a bit more inspiring than the playful, “Rub, a dub, dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!” Four blessings in its entirety: One for produce of the land, one for Israel, one for Jerusalem and one for renewal of God’s grace. A little plastic wallet-sized versions of Grace after Meals is a handy thing to have!
7. Guest Gratitude: You know what it’s like. You share in a glorious repast prepared for you by friends. You finish the meal and it’s time to express your thanks. There are times when I am overwhelmed by my host’s bounteousness. Words stumble out never quite as eloquent as you would hope. The work, the thought, the time that was put into a shared meal is humbling. Ben Zoma in the Talmud expressed his feelings of such a display this way: “How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!” Our tradition adds another voice to this declaration with a short add-on blessing to the Grace After Meals that you can find in a siddur to be directed specifically at one’s host.
8. Routine Gratitude: There is an impressive list of blessings in the morning liturgy that thank our Maker for everything from sight to clothing, from standing to walking, from understanding to freedom. Those in the Kovno ghetto asked their rabbi if they who slaved from dawn to dusk in a labor camp should continue to recite the freedom from slavery blessing. He responded with this riveting answer: “Despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated than ever to recite the blessing to show our enemies that as a people we were spiritually free.”
9. Labor Gratitude: Think about this: Left to our devices, would we be able to sew our own clothes, build our own homes, cook all of our own food? Here is how Ben Zoma expressed this gratitude: “What labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground them and sifted the flour, he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash the wool, comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.”
10. Lastly, our tradition urges us to innovate in prayer, create a blessing unique to our own experiences and add it to our personal devotions. Examples of those written by our sages are included in the Talmud’s section about blessings. Several were considered so relevant and evocative they made it into the official liturgy. Mine is quite humble and, some might say, pedestrian. But as I lay my head on my pillow each night I quietly thank God for having a pillow. So many people worldwide have no bed, no dry warm spot upon which to lay their head. I don’t ever want to take my pillow for granted — it is a gift and I appreciate it.
It may not be the high-falutinist of all blessings, but it is mine. What’s yours?