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Thank You: For Life and Its Overlooked Blessings

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 13, 2013


I begin tonight with some words of wisdom from a contemporary sage: Fran Lebowitz. (According to a brief online biography, Lebowitz is a Manhattan author "known for her sardonic social commentary on America filtered through her New York City sensibilities.")

First, then, for those of you wondering if it's OK to have your cell phone working during our service, here is Lebowitz's commentary on such technology. "As a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you."

My conclusion? Even if you are a teenager, please be sure your phone is powered off for the rest of tonight's service.

And now for some more of Fran Lebowitz's brief pearls of wisdom.

All modesty is false.

All strangers are perfect.

All mothers are single.

All suspicions are sneaking.

All consciences are guilty.

Is she right? Are you feeling guilty on this Kol Nidre eve? What's the sin that is most yours as we begin the Day of Atonement?

As you may know, this matter of sin and defining sin is very much alive in the contemporary Jewish world. Back in 2010, we at Sinai took a crack at it. I asked you to each share a sin you felt you had committed and the results were awesome and humbling. You spoke from the heart and together we created a viddui/confession that truly reflects our community.

Our own Reform movement is working on a new High Holiday prayer book that will try to give modern meaning to the word "sin." For that matter, only a few weeks ago, I read an op ed in which the author said that the thousands of people who watched and shared the recent video of an over-the-top Bar Mitzvah in Dallas were guilty of the sin of gossip and guilty too of stealing time away from better purposes.

Then last Friday afternoon I had an experience that focused me on one aspect of our behavior that also merits some serious attention.

My thinking began on a hospital visit to one of our long-time Temple members. Sid Cooley is 99 years old and he was seriously ill at Baystate. For those of you who don't know Sid, suffice it to say that Sid was a judge here in the Pioneer Valley and distinguished himself for decades as a beloved humanitarian in the Springfield community.

So there we were in the hospital: Sid, surrounded by family, talking to me about the arc of his life. More than anything else, Sid wanted me to know that, looking back over his 99 years, he was grateful. Grateful for his family, for his beloved wife, for his children, for his friends, for his legal work, grateful for the life with which he had been blessed.

It was a remarkable conversation - especially because I'm not telling tales out of school if I tell you that Sid (like anyone) has had his share of setbacks and frustrations. It's just that the defeats didn't register for Sid the way they might have for someone else. Sid reads life with a different focus. He is simply, honestly grateful.

It was beautiful to hear Sid speak. It was inspiring. Sid's gratefulness felt like a blessing. So much so that as I thought about tonight and the Yom Kippur focus on sin and teshuvah/repentance, I found myself thinking more and more about gratitude.

What a loss if gratitude isn't a central part of the way we live our lives.

Ashamnu...bagadnu...Perhaps we sin when we are ungrateful.

But can I really say that ingratitude is a sin? Ingratitude doesn't appear on even the longest, traditional listing of sins in our tradition.

Nevertheless I'm intrigued, and tonight I am proposing that the failure to be thankful robs us of living at our best.

Rabbi Shai Held out of New York City uses these words to start us out. "Everything that we have and are is a gift. None of us ever did anything - none of us could ever had done anything - to earn the gifts that are life and consciousness..."

In other words, how can we not be thankful.

He continues: "Judaism is a religion of gratitude... Nothing [is] more indicative of a Jewish approach to life than an abundant sense of appreciation."

Consider the opening words in our prayer book. They're not actually said in the Temple; they're written to be said when a person wakes up at home. And here they are: "Modeh ani l'fanecha... Thank you, God... I am grateful."

First thing in the morning, then, a Jew is meant to be grateful. As one of the Talmudic rabbis teaches, giving thanks is so important we should even give thanks that we can give thanks.

The only problem is that most of us much of the time forget this attitude of gratitude. Life takes over and we get distracted.

I'm remembering what happened to me some 15 years ago late on a Wednesday evening. I was living in a pre-Word, DOS-based world when my computer crashed. The C-drive was gone. No access. No information.

To put it mildly, I was a wreck. I was angry and distracted. I walked around for two days calculating the loss of material and the loss of time that would surely ensue as I tried to reconstruct what I could.

It was a disaster - sort of. It was devastating - to some extent.

Because as you might imagine, within a few days I did come back to reality and admit that as aggravating and supremely inconvenient as the crash was, it was ultimately fixable.

For a time, though, I was far too absorbed in my problem to digest that kind of talk. My attitude of gratitude disappeared much like it does for many of us when the crabgrass appears in the otherwise successful lawn, when the plumber brings the wrong faucet for the new sink, when the air conditioner breaks during a heat wave, when the salad at Max Burger arrives with the wrong dressing on it.

Inconveniences get blown out of proportion.

We forget what is essential and what is not essential.

We lose perspective on who we are and how fundamentally fortunate we are.

We are like the little girl who attended a Hollywood school with the children of movie stars, producers, and directors. Asked to write a composition on poverty, the young lady started as follows: "Once, there was a poor little girl. Her father was poor, her mother was poor, her governess was poor, her chauffeur was poor, her butler was poor. Everybody in her house was very, very poor."

Now that's not us - exactly. As adults, we are generally a little more circumspect in how we describe our problems. In addition, some of us do face challenges in our lives that are substantial and truly painful.

Still, I wonder about us and our vision of what we are owed in life. I think we lose perspective and, more often than we care to admit, we stop saying modeh ani. We forget to be grateful.

That's when it's helpful to hear this prayer that ought to stretch our imaginations back into their proper dimensions. It was written by Sister Joyce Rupp, a nun who lives in Iowa. I think Sister Joyce has something to teach us all as she considers how we conduct our lives.

To my brothers and sisters around the world...

While I was deciding which oat bran cereal to eat this morning, you were searching the ground for leftover grains from the passing truck.

While I was jogging at the health center, you were getting your exercise at work in the landowner's field under the scorching sun.

While I was choosing between diet and regular soda, your parched lips yearned for a few drops of clean water.

While I poured my new improved detergent into the washing machine, you stood in the river with your bundle of clothes.

While I read the paper and drank my latte, you walked five miles to a tiny schoolroom to learn how to read.

While I scanned the ads for a bargain on an extra piece of clothing, you woke up to put on the same shirt and pants you have worn for months.

While I built a 14-room house for the three people in my family, your family of 10 found shelter in a one-room hut.

My brothers and sisters, forgive me for forgetting. Forgive me for not seeing what I have and what you so desperately need.

Friends, I don't want to be Debbie Downer. I'm not suggesting you and I need to give up running water or our houses. We don't need to apologize for our good fortune. But remember, please, at least one of the reasons for breaking the glass under the chupa at a Jewish wedding. I tell brides and grooms we do this at a private moment of celebration so that they won't ever forget the broken world beyond their party. Bride and groom aren't supposed to forget to be grateful for the love and blessings that surround them.

Break the glass to be mindful of the larger world.

Mindful of the real world.

And reframe, review the blessings that really come with life here and now. Try this experiment. If you are feeling brave and have a little extra time, spend one hour writing down everything for which you are grateful.

Most people fly through the first 15 minutes. The next 15 minutes the pen moves more slowly. The next 15 minutes get even tougher, but you can pull through if you include thanks for your pillow and socks. The last 15 minutes are hardest of all.

List your blessings. Count your blessings.

Feel your blessings. Look for blessings.

Take a deep breath (in and of itself that's good for your health). Take a deep breath and be thankful if you can you wiggle your toes, smell fresh bread, hear the wind brushing against the trees, feel the sun on your face, hum a melody, taste chocolate cake or wine.

Do you believe someone loves you? Do you love someone yourself? Are you alive?

As ill as some of us may be, as unemployed or underemployed, as worried about the future as we may be, we do have blessings and Kol Nidre night is the occasion for naming the blessings and promising not to take them for granted.

In fact, Sinai Temple, it's because I believe we have to see ourselves as blessed, that I'm going to ask you now if you'll stretch with me. I want to ask those of you who have a roof over your heads, clothes for the coming winter, and food in the pantry if you'll join me in a little project.

Remember Sister Joyce's prayer?

If you plan on exercising next week or consuming a latte, I hope you'll remember with me how many people would consider our life of options to be a life of luxury. I hope you'll join me in making a gift to alleviate the suffering of refugees from Syria.

Yes, you heard me say it.

I hope you'll join me in making a gift to alleviate the suffering of refugees from Syria.

This is not me talking politics. This is not me discussing President Obama's next move. I'm neither Republican nor Democrat tonight.

No, this is me on an evening when I'm talking about gratefulness and I am hoping to cultivate a sense for how fortunate we are the very moment we wake up every single morning in the United States of America.

This is me whose heart aches when I consider that, no matter what happens with Syria's chemical weapons, there are still two million Syrian refugees. Tomorrow morning when they wake up they can't count on having electricity, running water, or health care.

Two million refugees.

Three quarters of them are women and children.

Most have nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As a reminder, this wouldn't be the first time our congregation has demonstrated its generosity. We have had a World Crisis Fund at Sinai since 1995, during which time we have contributed for disasters in Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and the fires in Northampton only a few years ago. We have also made contributions for Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, Niger, Sudan, and Haiti.

I do know that Syria may be different. We haven't ever raised funds for people from a country has tried to destroy Israel.

Nevertheless, I'm still thinking and feeling that right now those refugees are human beings in a setting our people have experienced too many times in the past. Like us, they are strangers in a strange land.

I'm even mindful of the holiday that will arrive this coming Wednesday. What's the major symbol of that festival? It's called a sukkah; it's that flimsy hut we Jews build to remember our own perilous circumstances on the flight from Egypt.

How can I give thanks for the comfort of my own comfortable home next week if I know two million human beings are living in nothing more than huts for the foreseeable future. No options. Sukkahs for an entire winter.

This Kol Nidre night it seems like bad faith for us not to help the refugees when we do have it within our capacity to do so.

I'm not deluding myself into thinking that a $50 or even a $500 check will end the refugee crisis. But as the Mishnah teaches: Even if I can't entirely wipe away a problem, that doesn't mean I'm not obligated to at least take a tiny step.

Every action for good helps.

Any commitment is better than no commitment.

To be precise, please join me in making a contribution to our World Crisis Fund. You can do this by visiting our Temple website and using your credit card as soon as you get home tonight. Or - if you wish - write a check either tonight or tomorrow and place that check in an envelope under the door of the Temple office. We will collect all your funds and distribute them to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a consortium of 49 Jewish agencies. The Jewish Coalition will distribute the money to organizations in Jordan working directly with the refugees there. And best of all, 100% of donated money will go to relief agencies. The Coalition covers its overhead through separate grants.

By the way, as a result of what we have done through the World Crisis Fund since 1995, Sinai Temple has contributed over $85,000 to various life-saving efforts.


In the end, what's this sermon all about?

A fundraiser on Kol Nidre or a challenge to think twice about our lives?

For me, it's all about our lives: our lives that are on balance full and varied and rich and safe and satisfying.

Modeh Ani - It's a blessing to be able to say thank you. I think it's even a responsibility.

One outcome of that leads me to the refugees and a sense of obligation to them. When we have so much, how can we not share?

The other outcome of counting blessings tonight is a commitment not to stop counting the blessings. When I'm tired, when (God forbid) my hard drive burns out, when I'm just a misery over whatever inconvenience comes my way, my Kol Nidre vow is to get over it. Get over myself. Get over today's little setback and get on with life.

Modeh Ani.

Let me say the words. Let me live the words.

Let me develop a gracious grateful soul.

It's exactly what being alive tonight requires.

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