The notion of gratefulness was not always a priority of my mind, heart or soul. As a matter of fact, to feel grateful was no easy task. Not uncommonly, I shared in a popular Jewish past time known as kvetching. If I didn't complain openly, my mind was often filled with thoughts of persistent dissatisfaction.
And then, several years ago, I took a leap of faith and attended a rabbinic retreat sponsored by Elat Hayyim, a spiritual retreat center, spending 5 days in silent meditation . It was during that experience, unexpectedly and overwhelmingly, that I had an epiphany, a personal experience of revelation.
Since that moment, I have devoted a major part of my devotional and spiritual life to the continued cultivation of the sense of wonder and gratefulness in the presence of God and the world.
The five day retreat was designed for rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community to engage them in the spiritual approach of mindfulness meditation. Each day was devoted entirely to sitting and walking meditations and was spent in silence (no easy task for a group of rabbis) during which participants had no contact with the outside world. The only exception was to address questions of clarification to our teachers and to articulate concerns during individual mentoring evaluations.
It was, I believe, the second or third night of the retreat. I was unable to sleep; I was restless with numbness – my heart and mind were blocked of any genuine emotion and connection. All I could sense was the emptiness of isolation. In the middle of the night, not having slept a wink, I made my way into the cool night and began to jog. Finally, fatigue overcame me and I was able to sleep for a few hours.
That morning, during a sitting meditation, which typically began at 6:15am and lasted an hour, I focused upon the first Jewish prayer in the morning upon awakening, “Modeh Ani” – “I thank you" (for waking up another morning). I then proceeded to recite the formal morning prayers wearing the Tallit (Prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries). I stepped over to a corner of the large meditation room, placed the prayer shawl over my head, and suddenly, without warning, was gripped by a torrent of uncontrolled sobbing. It was as if floodgates of feeling that had been dammed up in my heart had suddenly burst open and for what seemed like an eternity, my body heaved with the eruption of tears and feelings that seemed to have sprung from the deepest wellsprings of my soul. I couldn’t stop. As I wept, all I could feel was the sensation of being thankful, and I repeated to myself, over and over again, “thank you, thank you God”, - “Modeh Ani lefanehcha” – “I am thankful before You”. There was nothing specific for which I was grateful – simply for being alive, for being blessed with a heart that was finally open and receptive to feeling fully alive and fully conscious, that somewhere there was something, something intimate and indispensable for the fullness of my life, something to which or to whom I was profoundly grateful.
This time the words of the prayer became a living, genuine reality. No matter how brief, transient and temporary it was, in those few moments, I understood the meaning of prayer.