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11/25/2020 01:46:43 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Getting To Gratitude

11/25/2020 11:31:36 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

For some this may be a challenging Thanksgiving. Without the large family gatherings and with an altered national  mood due to the pandemic, it may be hard for some people to get to a state of gratitude.  

I would like to repackage a wonderful spiritual practice regarding prayer to help in this area.

The Talmud (Berachot 32a) states: Rabbi Simlai taught: One should always set forth praise of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and then pray for his own needs.

This recommendation is accepted as required normative practice in Jewish law. Rav Amram Gaon sees the statement of Rabbi Simlai as the reason why in Jewish prayer, the Amidah, the prayer where we request all sorts of things from God, is prefaced by Pesukei D’Zimra - psalms praising God. Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (the RIF) notes that this passage explains why the Amidah begins with three blessings praising God. 

What is going on here? Why the requirement to praise God before making requests.

It could be that it is simple manners. It is improper to come before God and to immediately launch into a list of needs. Common courtesy requires an acknowledgement of God’s greatness. 

I think there is more. 

The essence of prayer is standing before God. The challenge is that it is hard to feel that we are in the presence of God. This is where praise of God comes in. Praise of God is chiefly an attempt to get to know God. We recall God’s greatness so it is clear to us to whom we are praying. 

Think of Pesukei D’Zimra and the blessings of praise at the beginning of the Amidah as God’s resume.  We have to read these sections in an undertone so we hear our own voice. In order for us to truly appreciate God, we need to hear ourselves declare God’s praise. 

This spiritual practice can be helpful on Thanksgiving. We should all take some time to verbalize (this can be done privately just like prayer, but I am sure those we are grateful for would be very moved if we would share it with them) why we are thankful for the people in our lives. We should articulate what circumstances of our lives we are grateful for. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes two unique aspects of thanksgiving when discussing the morning blessings wherein we thank God for things like sight and our ability to get out of bed in the morning.  He says this: “The license to praise God or to offer Him thanks is a unique grant of grace whose primary purpose is to being man in close contact with his creator and to elevate him morally by revealing to him the divine attributes as ethical criteria that must guide him...As human beings extol their Master and Creator, each utterance of praise is filled with an ethical content to be realized later by man.” (Blessings and Thanksgiving: Reflections on the Siddur and Synagogue)

The morning blessings  allow us, like Pesukei D’Zimra and the beginning of the Amiah, to verbalize God;s gifts to us and  “get to know” God. Additionally, they turn praise into an ethical norm and a call to action. We cannot simply express thanks to God for His wonders, we must mimic them. If God helps those in need, so should we. (This is a favorite theme of Rabbi Soloveitchik).

The secret to prayer is not waiting to be inspired and then to pray. Rather, we should pray and use the words and the experience to bring inspiration.

The same goes for Thanksgiving. Do not wait to feel grateful. Use your own words to create a sense of gratitude. 

So, if this Thanksgiving Day you are feeling a bit down and not in the mood, try declaring out loud who you are thankful for and why.

I will go first. Here is my list.

  • I will declare my gratitude for my family who bring me joy and love.
  • I will declare my gratitude for new relationships forged with the Center For Urban Transformation who we have partnered with so that UOS can be a force for good in the border community.

  • I will declare gratitude to all those generous folks who have contributed in so many ways so that UOS can reach out to all our members and assist those in need.

  • Gabi and I will declare gratitude for the love and affection that our parents continue to shower on us and for their health.

  • We will declare gratitude for our health and that of our family members.

  • We will declare gratitude for careers that offer us the privilege to be involved with Torah all day.

Your turn…..

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781