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Toward Shabbat: Vayetze

The Talmud (Berakhot 54b) declares that there are four types of people who must offer thanks to God with a thanks-offering and a special blessing: seafarers, those who walk in the desert, one who was ill and recovered, and one who was incarcerated and freed. With overcoming a dangerous journey or a life-threatening experience and the attainment of safety, freedom, and health, come abundant expressions of gratitude.

Gratitude, however, is often felt at the in-between, or the less grand or ecstatic, moments of existence. I am attuned to the way the Jewish tradition coaches us toward gratitude. From the moment we wake up in the morning, we acknowledge the intricacies of our bodies. We say blessings when we eat, when we see natural phenomena, and when we don a new piece of clothing, and thanksgiving is a central theme of the Amidah prayer we say three times a day. Rather than move through our days on automatic pilot, we are asked to pause and acknowledge what is good and so to cultivate gratitude. Thanking is not only an act or an articulation, it is also an attitude. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “It is gratefulness that makes the soul great,” and Rav Kook teaches, “When the existence of gratitude and recognition of the good become lacking from existence, the spirit of a person is left without sparkle or shine.” Gratitude creates a glow about us. Our souls soar, powered by thankfulness.

Ever since I was a child, my parents’ home was the gathering place for our extended family Thanksgiving. As I think about what is and what isn’t this Thanksgiving weekend, it occurs to me that part of our yearly family gathering often holds what is and what isn’t, regardless of the year. The day marks what has changed and what has stayed the same. Great Aunt Esther used to scoop sherbet out of the 1980s-era punch so there was none left for anyone else. The punch is no more, and Aunt Esther died many years ago. The baby cousins I used to play with are now getting married and having babies of their own. Anne is still making her yams, Eric is still the one who cuts the turkey, Jordy is always watching football in the family room. Janice and Karen still help out in the kitchen. My grandma used to make her brisket and apple pie. It’s my mom now who makes the brisket, and I am the apple-pie baker. There’s always a Gershwin singalong with my dad at the piano. Everyone used to hunch over the piano to see the lyrics. Now there are sheets passed out with the words. Some sing with loud voices, others sit on the couch somewhat amused and embarrassed. Irene and Joe haven’t been coming to Thanksgiving for years since they became snowbirds in Florida, but Irene’s unique (that’s the diplomatic way to say it) voice can still be heard, and we all recall when Rita, z”l, would sing her famous solo of the line “No use complaining” from the Porgy and Bess song I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin.

Right before the meal we gather around the buffet table and my father shares some words of gratitude. It’s not unusual for him to get choked up (I get that trait from both parents). The gratitude acknowledges all that still is: the gift of being together, the blessing of having the generations that came before us set the stage for these years of tradition, and, of course, the new generation being born. Simultaneous with the gratitude is loss of what is no longer, the acknowledgement of the fragility of time and the lack of guarantees of what will be. I am aware of how bound up one is with the other. Gratitude is not a dismissal of loss, it is an awareness amidst the complexity of living.

So, on this Thanksgiving weekend, we hold both truths: what is and what isn’t. We pray that sometime in the not too distant future we will all say a collective blessing of thanks for having come through this challenging time of uncertain waters and life-threatening illness, and for the freedom that will come from no longer being locked away from one another. In the meantime, there are little blessings that life grants us to make us sparkle and make our souls great.