A few years ago I took part in a life coaching group. We met for a number of weeks to talk about our goals in life, how we might achieve them, and the broader scope of what they really meant to us. Our first assignment was to come up with a list of 100 goals. There were no rules, so no goal was left off. From writing one letter to a friend to finding a job, anything was fair game. As we met, we looked at our goals and decided which ones were attainable in a reasonable time and which ones would need either more time or different circumstances. One of my goals was to say “thank you” every day. It wasn’t about thanking a person specifically; rather, it was about remembering to have gratitude even during an unlucky streak or a grey period.
The origin of this goal was really to find meaning when reciting modeh Ani every morning when I woke up. Our daily liturgy begins before we even get out of bed. We are to recite the words “Modeh ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam, she’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla rabbah emunatecha.” I am grateful to You, living, enduring King, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure. In stating my “thank you” goal, I wanted to know what it means to say thank you, and why I should even do it.
Our parshah this week, parshat Tzav, gives us the specific instructions for the priests as they offer sacrifices. We also receive the prohibition on mixing milk and meat and the details of how priests go about sanctification. Specifically, we learn about the offering for thanks-giving. Chapter 7 teaches us that a person is to provide a thanksgiving offering in response to having survived a disaster. Later, in tractate Berachot, the Talmud teaches that we are also to give this offering after returning from a long trip or recovering from illness, childbirth, and similar events. We now see this play out in modern Jewish life when we go to synagogue after going through one of these events and reciting the Gomel prayer on a Torah reading day.
What strikes me about this obligation is that it really isn’t an obligation at all. The text does not tell us that we are obligated, chayav, to bring a thanksgiving offering; the wording is tzrichim, we needto bring the offering. This implies that we are saying thank you not because it is demanded of us, but rather because we need to do it for our own psychological wellbeing.
Saying the words “thank you” can become a rote action, something that we say out of habit and not necessarily with a lot of meaning. This week the Torah reminds us of the gifts we take for granted in our everyday lives. We aren’t commanded to say thank you in the way we are commanded to honor our mother and father or commanded not to steal. Rather, the text chooses the word “need” as though gratitude is something without which human beings are not complete. As we are about to enter the week in which we celebrate Purim, the holiday commemorating Queen Esther and Mordechai foiling Haman’s plot, we remember what could have been and move forward with gratitude for the lives that we live today. When you’re feeling down or having “bad luck,” perhaps all you need to do is say your daily gratitudes and really be conscious of them. Revisit why you are thankful, and maybe even follow up on some goals of your own. Occasionally I’ll go back and look at my list, and every time I do, I am stunned by how far I’ve come.
- Our ‘ethical covenant’ guides us in our relationships with one another and God. We often speak to God through prayer and the rabbis warn that our prayer should be filled withkavannah, intention as opposed to routine. How do you find kavannah in your relationships with each other and God?
- What else do you say that is often out of habit instead of with true intention?