The fall holiday cycle is almost done. We have Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to go, and then Jewish life will settle down for a bit.
FYI: Your clergy are almost certainly exhausted from the past couple of months. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Email is fine, but I know a couple of rabbis who save written thank-yous in a box, specifically to help them keep going when things are tough.
The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They wonder, sometimes, who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”
I am not a pulpit rabbi – I’m a Jew in the Pew. I will be writing my rabbis with my own thanks.
I just thought some of y’all might want to know when letters of appreciation are particularly welcome. The expression of gratitude is truly a mitzvah.
“I’m not in the business of making people skinny, I am in the business of making people strong.” – Brittany Shaddle
Elul is a time for taking stock of one’s life, and part of that is counting blessings. In May of 2010 I made an appointment that I wasn’t sure I wanted to make: I called a personal trainer.
I thought only movie stars and billionaires worked with trainers, but I had a problem: I had a long history of getting hurt while exercising. I’d start with great intentions, and then in a week or two I’d be in the doctor’s office getting a review of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for a dinged-up body part. I figured it was time to get some supervision.
This is how I wound up calling Brittany. She had a Yelp.com review from a man in his 70’s in which he talked about how much she helped him. Her credentials were impressive: a degree in Kinesiology and certification as a trainer. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t be mean to me.
That was five years ago, and now I count Brittany among my blessings. She’s kept me moving from 55 to 60, and taught me that whatever the diagnosis for my pain problems, the best medicine is movement. A sciatica flare-up last weekend was limited largely because she had taught me how to move through it. As for the expense, her fee for an hour was less than I had expected, and it’s worth it.
Brittany is a good woman: she and her husband Mike are two of the best and kindest people I know. She’s younger than my kids, but she’s one of my best teachers, and not just about exercise. Her positive attitude about every challenge inspires me.
Who is a blessing in your life? Be sure to take some time this Elul and let them know what they have done for you. As the liturgy will remind us, we don’t know what the future will bring. Let’s not leave the good words unsaid.
For the last several weeks, every time we’ve gotten to Shabbat I’ve thought, “WHEW! Glad that week is behind me!” and I’ve thought naively that surely next week will be better. Here I am again, with the WHEW, but I find that I’m learning to find the things for which I am grateful even if they are small.
I am grateful for cease fires in Israel, Gaza and everywhere, however long they can last.
I am grateful for journalists, even though they inform me of scary stuff.
I am grateful for my opportunity this past June to meet Rivka Selah z”l, a beautiful soul who departed this week, mother of a dear friend and mother-in-law of another.
I am grateful for all the small blessings of the week: for the gorgeous sunshine pouring in my windows, for the cucumbers and tomatoes growing in my garden, for the hummingbirds who put on a continual carnival in the back yard. I am grateful for zinnias and milkweed and those weird strong tendrils that help grape vines climb.
I am grateful for the friends who got in touch after reading my blog post on depression. I am doing OK, and all those caring friends are a part of that.
I am grateful for a number of things that confidentiality bars me from posting anywhere public. I am grateful for work that I love, and for students who learned from me, and who taught me wonderful things.
I am grateful for my sons. They rock. And for my beloved spouse, and for the little dogs who snuggle and dance and make us laugh.
I am grateful for my synagogue, Temple Sinai, where I will go to services tonight and count more blessings, and hear familiar words, and sing familiar songs with people I’ve known for years.
I am grateful for the blessings I haven’t noticed yet. May the peace of Shabbat make them apparent to me.
I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.
I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.
I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.
This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?
The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!
Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2
I know what it’s like. I’ve been there: Unhappy Thanksgiving.
The details are private and personal, but the larger picture: the family gathering that is more painful than fun, the lonely Thanksgiving far from people you love, the holiday when there is an empty chair at the table – I’ve been to all those Thanksgivings, and they were miserable.
One of the blessings I count today is that this year is a good year for me: I’m surrounded by family, in a happy home, with food on the table, and the turkey is paid for. I have what I need, and more.
Not all years were like that. And I know, for someone reading this, this year isn’t like that. I’m truly sorry that you are having an Unhappy Thanksgiving this year. If I had a magic wand, I would heal all the hunger, and the loneliness, and the poverty, and the broken hearts – but I have no magic wand.
All I can tell you is that this is just one day. If the sun is shining, take a walk. If you can identify a blessing, give thanks for it. Gratitude is often the beginning of something good, weirdly enough.
But know that I know you are there, and I’ve been there. I wish you better years ahead.
My father was a veteran of the Korean War. He spent that war serving in Europe, assisting with the reclamation of Holland and other Allied projects. He refused to talk very much about that time in his life, but he always made clear that he hated everything about the Army, except for the opportunity to experience French culture. He’d been drafted, he didn’t want to go, and he did not have a high opinion of anyone who signed up voluntarily.
That was pretty much the sum of my exposure to the U.S. Military until I fell in love with and eventually married a Navy vet, the daughter of a Navy vet who served in three wars. Later our son celebrated his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy.
Listening to Linda tell her stories about her years in the Navy was a new perspective for me. By the time Aaron enlisted, I was proud that he did so. The funny thing about that is that Linda’s Navy experience was in many ways pretty awful, at least as bad as my father’s Army experience. She and every other woman dealt constantly with sexual harassment, and she had a secret: she was a lesbian, and if anyone caught wind of that, she faced dishonorable discharge and jail. Eventually, she realized that her pay was terrible, she had very little future, and she’d be better off in civilian life – so she went to work for the U.S. Government in law enforcement, as an inspector in the U.S. Customs Service for 33 years. There she helped break up drug smuggling operations, seized endangered animals and birds that people were trying to traffic, and protected the patents of U.S. companies. (I bet you didn’t know they did all those things.)
Linda served both in the Navy and in Customs because there is a deep, genuine patriotism in her family. She usually insists that it’s about job security, but I can see through that smoke screen: in both cases she was in jobs where her orientation left her anything but secure. She believes in the United States of America, she understands that she is lucky to live here, and she insisted on giving honorable service to her country. Illness prevented our son from completing his term of enlistment, and he did not serve in wartime, but patriotism and a desire for service were the reasons he enlisted and fought hard to stay in the Navy as long as he could.
There are some other military folk on the edges of my life. One thing all of them share is that they may talk a great line about doing it “for the money” or for “security” but for most of them, patriotism is an important part of it, too. They want to serve, and to do so honorably. The words “service” and “honor” mean something very specific to them, something that cannot be bought cheaply with talk.
As near as I could tell, what my father hated about the Army was that for those years, he lost most of his freedom. He was at the call of the country, like it or not, and he didn’t like it one bit. That’s fair; not liking it is legitimate. He was drafted, after all; he didn’t sign up.
But thank heavens Linda’s Dad served aboard Navy ships, fighting Hitler and Tojo. Thank heavens he came home safely from Korea. Thank heavens Linda was willing to serve on a land-locked base in Nevada, working with the vets addicted to drugs and sick at heart, returning from Vietnam. Thank heavens for all the vets who served their country – who served you and me.
There’s a lot of talk flying around today from politicians and others (like me) about “gratitude” and “service.” Talk is cheap. “Thank you for your service” is cheap. It’s so cheap that perhaps we should shut up until we are willing to do more, willing to do something that corresponds to the service given.
What we were given was priceless – real years of real lives. Let’s push our elected officials to do more for the men and women who have served this country – to skip the cheap chat and instead, actually take care of those who have given years, and in too many cases, health and sanity to serving us. Let’s be willing to pay the taxes to get decent care for the veterans who have given so much to us. Not one of them should have to wait years for approval to see a doctor, or to get therapy. Not one should be without a safe home. Not one should be hungry. And yet far too many are.
הכרת הטוב, Hakarat Hatov, means “recognizing the good.” It’s the Hebrew phrase we use to convey the concept of gratitude. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate every bit of good is in our lives, no matter how many legitimate complaints we may have.
November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day because it was the day that the hostilities of WWI stopped. The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed for months, but the people of every nation involved in that war had learned to recognize the goodness of peace. One of the causes of the war had been the tendency of international leaders to forget that war is horrible: they were focussed on potential gains, offended honor, and on their alliances. WWI was a terrible lesson, with more terrible lessons to follow.
In 1958 in the United States, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in order to include the veterans of WWII and Korea in the appreciation. It became a day to recognize the good in each of those individuals, and the goodness of their gift to the rest of us. When a soldier is drafted or enlists in the military, he or she takes the oath of enlistment:
I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
This oath effectively limits the exercise of many constitutional rights that ordinary citizens enjoy. A soldier in uniform cannot criticize the President or the military, and must be careful about doing so out of uniform. A soldier must follow all lawful orders (and must be prepared to justify in court why an order was not lawful if he does not follow it.) Search and seizure are perfectly legal on a military base. Most Americans would chafe mightily at these restrictions and others under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Military service requires the voluntary relinquishment of freedoms the rest of us take for granted.
Add to that the hazards of serving a nation at war: the physical and mental toll of battle, the stress of living in a war zone for an extended period of time, the strain on family relationships and friendships, and the challenge of return to civilian life, and it’s obvious that we owe our veterans many thanks.
Where we fail, though, is that often all they get is thanks. “Thank you” will not provide health care, education, housing, or mental health care. “Thank you” is cheap, but all those other things are expensive. We and our politicians are quick with thanks and lip service, but not so quick with the rest.
When I am writing a check for taxes it is easy to think about all the things the government does that I don’t want. (I’ll spare you the list, but trust me, it’s long.) Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good, demands I look further than the things that are bugging me. It demands that I recognize the good that those men and women have done for me, and that I make sure that enough of my taxes go to at least ameliorate their lost health and lost opportunities. (If you think that we already take good care of our veterans, I suggest you read this earlier blog post of mine, or this article about veterans and suicide.
In Pirkei Avot 4.1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” The question for us each Veterans Day is, do we appreciate what we have? Do we appreciate what these people have given us? And if we say we appreciate it, what are we going to do about it?