Friday, November 27, 2009

Gratefulness or Gratitude: Thanksgiving Reflections

I have often been asked why I prefer to use Gratefulness instead of Gratitude whenever attempting to highlight the centrality of being grateful as a spiritual state of enlightenment. Perhaps the Torah reading for this Shabbat, Vayeitzei, will shed some light on the distinction between the two.
The rabbis tell us “From the beginning of time no one ever thanked God as Leah did.”(Talmud Berachot 7b)
This commentary is based on the verse “She conceived again and bore a son and declared-This time I will praise, thank -odeh- the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35)
The Etz Hayyim commentary (2001, The Rabbinical Assembly, JPS, p.174) provides us with an insightful reading of this text. ”The names of Leah’s three sons reflect her frustrating rivalry with her sister for the love of the husband they share… Now with the fourth son, her mood changes from rivalry to gratitude, so she names him Judah (Yehudah) from the Hebrew root meaning “to praise”…Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers.”
In other words Leah I am sure felt gratitude each time she was blessed with a child, feeling a temporary hope that with each birth she will finally fill her sense of being unloved with the appreciation and love of her husband. But that was no to be the case, She remained the less preferred wife, even after the birth of Judah. At this point, however, she arrived at a state of mind that was inherently grateful without extraneous expectation .She was suffused with grateFULness, not merely feeling gratitude for a particular gift. Her way of experiencing the world was not conditioned on receiving anything; rather-“Hapaam”-this time, in this moment I have been able to recognize the giftedness of being a woman and being able to bear a child-my sense of self is no longer determined by what I expect from others i.e. my husband, but rather from an awareness of being grateful for who I am.
This is the great spiritual challenge of Thanksgiving-We give thanks for so much in our lives, we can and should feel gratitude; as we think about Leah, the loveless Matriarch with “weak eyes,” we take inspiration from her strong sense of self rooted in her capacity to praise and thank God f for who she was, and celebrate her life with gratefulness.
Happy Thanksgiving and
Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Tenoo li ahuzat kever…
Sell me a burial site…
Genesis 23:3

The “leitwort,” the pivoyal word repeated in twelve different forms in the course of the first chapter is that connected with burial, kavor. Abraham has lost his wife Sarah; he needs to bury her, and acquires a family burial plot in the land of Canaan where his family will bury their dead in perpetuity.This act is followed by a resumption of living as he directs his servant to seek out a proper mate for his son Isaac.Abraham in old age then proceeds to remarry and bear more children.

Yesterday, during Shabbat services at Romemu, Rabbi David Ingber invited the congregation to pair off with another worshipper and engage in an exchange around the question: What do you need to bury before you can proceed with your own life?
It was a powerful exercise that made conscious many of the obstacles that stand in the way of our personal growth and forward spiritual movement. I considered this personal and intimate application of what appears to be a formal transaction in the Torah as a brilliant exegesis of Torah’s everyday wisdom. This gift of being able to translate an ancient text into a contemporary and living document for enhancing our lives is one with which Rabbi David is blessed and for which I am deeply grateful.

In contemplating the act of burial as a “de-cathexis” it occurred to me that the root of the word to bury –kvr- also spells a totally opposite word that suggests the very opposite of burial and finality.
If the letters are rearranged, we have a new word-vkr- morning, three letters that also constitute the name of Isaac’s wife, (R)i(vk)ah. That is, for a new beginning to emerge in our lives it is imperative that we let go, we bury certain things of our past and honor them for what they were and go on with our lives. The past is important and must be recognized and honored, but only in the service of today and tomorrow.
I am grateful to Rabbi David for providing me with the spaciousness and creative opening to further interpret his words and those of the Torah.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Last Sunday I turned seventy. Since then I have found myself contemplating my mortality and vulnerability. I have experienced an array of feelings touching on sadness, fear and uncertainty. There was more in my life that was behind rather than ahead of me; my cup was no longer full, but mostly empty.

This is a depressing thought, one that confronts us with a spiritual challenge not only when we age, but whenever we feel that life's fullness is somehow out of reach for us, whether as a result of loss, illness, grief or some other personal experience of failure. How do we cope? How do we go ahead with our lives in a joyful and meaningful way?

One answer is found, I believe, in a striking passage of Hayyai Sarah. Sarah has died, Abraham has acquired a burial place for her, and we are told: "Abraham was old, advanced in years,and the Lord blessed Abraham in all things - Va'Adonai berakh et Avraham ba'kol." (Genesis 24: 1)

Many commentators point out that indeed Abraham enjoyed all the desired blessings of life - longevity, wealth, honor and wonderful children (Ibn Ezra). Yet, somehow, others dwell on what Abraham desired most and didn't receive until his final years, as the source of his greatest blessing, namely his own progeny. Rashi sees the bakol as equivalent in numerical value to ben, son, namely 52. Thus the blessing of greatest value is his son, Isaac for whom he needs to provide an appropriate wife which represents a segue to the remaining portion of the parashah.

A somewhat amusing discussion arises among our sages regarding the value of a daughter in ancient society; Rabbi Meir contending that because Abraham did not have a daughter, he considered himself blessed; Rabbi Judah, to the contrary, understood the word bakol asthe name of Abraham's daughter (Bava Batra 16b).

The commentary that resonates most powerfully for me is the Ramban, Nachmanides: "Others provided a hiddush, a fresh and innovative interpretation, one that is very profound and contains the deepest of secrets and mysteries of the Torah...that the holy One Blessed be He, possesses a divine trait that is known as KOL- ALL, and this is the foundation of everything...and He blessed him (Abraham) with this characteristic that emanates from God's Allness."

In spite of Abraham's loss of his beloved wife Sarah, the uncertainty of his son's future and the trials of advanced age, he nonetheless felt blessed because he had acquired an inner spiritual quality of the Divine which was the capacity to see life's fullness and completeness in all things and at all times. Abraham's intimacy with God found its expression in this connection to the totality and fullness of life. Everything is God-Ein od milvado (Deut. 4:35, chanted as the first verse before the Haqafot)- and the capacity to recognize the divine in everything, even in one's advancing years, is the greatest of all blessings. Moreover, Abraham's sefirotic attachment is Hesed, compassion. Thus Abraham's love can be seen as a natural outpouring of his attribute of kol.

"...the ability to perceive "allness" is a way of coping (compassionately) with evil and suffering." (I Thank therefore I Am-Gateways to Gratefulness, X Libris, p. 88)

As I make my way into my 71st year, I pray that I be blessed with Abraham's insight of "allness." May we all be blessed with the awareness of the divine in all things and in this way not only cope with the challenges ahead of us, but convert them into paths of greater gratefulness, hesed, and peace.


The Grateful Rabbi On YOU TUBE

here is a video of a talk in Toronto Canada-Feb.2008.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I didn't want a birthday party- I was turning 70, a milestone year in anyone's life, and I wished to experience it as simply and quietly as possible.My family felt otherwise and my wife suggested that instead of a "birthday party" with connotations of excess and going overboard, we refer to the event as a "Gratefulness Gathering." I agreed and indeed the occasion was extraordinary ; friends and family came together, ate and drank, shared their friendship and love, and made me cry with gratitude for them and my life.
Only token gifts were brought; in the spirit of gratefulness each participant was encouraged to donate something to a charitable cause of their own choosing. Gratefulness needed to be translated into compassion for it to be fulfilling.
Perhaps others will adopt this practice when celebrating their birthdays and discover the greatest gift of all, the gift of loving gratitude.