My friend Nathaniel Whittemore writes a beautiful piece today about what social entrepreneurs are thankful for (and he is good enough to include me among his list of respondents), which inspires me to reflect on thankfulness as well.
Tonight we enter the Hebrew month of Kislev, in which Hannukah takes place. During Hannukah, the traditional liturgy adds a paragraph thanking God for the miraculous achievements of the Maccabees. Significantly, this paragraph is added not as its own blessing during the daily Amidah, the litany of eighteen blessings; instead, it is included in the daily blessing of thanksgiving.
Why is this significant? Because the ancient Rabbis had the option of mentioning Hannukah anywhere during the Amidah: during the blessing for redemption, for instance; or the blessing that mentions our hope for the coming of the Messiah. Yet the Rabbis decided to mention Hannukah as part of the blessing of thanksgiving, and thus we can legitimately ask why.
Gratitude requires a certain view of the world, a certain existential posture. It requires openness–the same openness that leads to curiosity, to learning, to inspiration and to courage. That basic openness is at the root of all that makes goodness possible in the world. If Moses had failed to open himself, would he have noticed the burning bush? If Judah Maccabee had failed to open himself, would he have had the courage to lead a revolution? If Dr. King had failed to open himself, would he have been able to inspire?
The Talmud says that “An embarrassed person cannot learn.” If we cannot open ourselves to the world and admit the limits of our knowledge, we can’t ask questions. At the same time, that openness to learning needs to happen in a context of wonder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Humankind will not die out for lack of information, but for we may perish for want of appreciation.” The interpretive move that has poisoned the achievements of modernity was a move of closure, a move that encountered new knowledge with a spirit of doubt, instead of a spirit of gratitude.
Thankfulness is a habit that has to be practiced. That is why Jews say blessings, and why all religious people pause in gratitude around mealtime. It is why the Jewish tradition mandates blessings for encounters with all sorts of natural phenomena, and why Jews are commanded to pray three times a day. It is easy to become selfish, to forget the miraculousness of our existence. It is particularly easy during the winter, when the night is long and the day is short. So we have Hannukah, when we literally light a candle just when we are ready to curse the darkness. And like all observances on the Jewish calendar, Hannukah concentrates our focus on a value habit we have to practice all the time, in this case the habit of gratitude.
So in that spirit, thank you for reading, thank you for being open to my reflections.