On gratitude, a core Jewish value that we are invited to experience in our daily lives
By Rabbi Seth Wax
In a typical year, this week would find many of us making preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday: shopping, preparing meals, and planning travel around the region or across the country, as we look forward to gathering with family and friends. And yet, with the pandemic raging and case numbers rising, we find ourselves adjusting our plans, downsizing, and finding ways to celebrate the holiday in a profoundly different way than we otherwise would.
As Jews, this isn't new for us – we've been to this rodeo before. Over the past nine months, we've experienced two full holiday seasons – Passover in the spring and the High Holidays and Sukkot in the fall – under the restrictions of social distancing. We've perfected Seders, services, and sermons over Zoom and YouTube and found that even though the mode is new, we can still have profoundly powerful and connecting experiences. We learned over the course of this year that even though we are forced to endure a measure of distance from each other, we can still be together and connect with the holidays' themes. And yet, a holiday like Thanksgiving, with no real ritual other than football games and gathering with those we care about, makes the distancing especially poignant.
The central theme of Thanksgiving – giving thanks, or gratitude – reminds us to take stock of all the goodness from which we have been lucky enough to benefit. During this time of loss of freedom, normalcy, and for some of us, of loved ones, it is particularly important to reconnect with the blessings we have received.
In the Jewish tradition, gratitude – or hodaya in Hebrew – is held up as a core value, something we are invited to experience in our daily lives. The first words of the morning liturgy are words of gratitude – "modah ani" – "I am grateful for the gift of life that is renewed within me each day." The Amidah, the central prayer of the liturgy recited three times each day, also contains a section dedicated to gratitude, the Modim prayer. The text invites us to thank God for all of the miracles, great and small, that we enjoy each day, from the gift of our lives to seemingly minor ones, as well. Classically, in this prayer, we are invited to bow at the waist when we say these words and to bend our knees and bow at the waist for the concluding blessing of this section.
The way we bow in prayer is worth exploring. In the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 28b), there is a brief discussion of bowing in the Amidah. One position holds that when bowing, a person should do so "until all the vertebrae in the spine protrude." That means a person should bow in such a way that she essentially bends and curves her body completely. (If you don't bow that much – don't worry! This is just one opinion, and we don't have to bend that much if we are not able.) The bow is a deep bend, as we bring our heads down toward the ground. It's a gesture of submission, turning down and inward, as we take up increasingly less and less space, expressing with our bodies the sense that we must be flexible at times.
As human beings with bodies based around the spine, we spend most of our time upright. Except for the times we hunch over our smartphones and lie in our beds, our bodies are erect. It is a position of power and control. With straight backs, we can see both far away and up close to move our arms to manipulate the world around us and defend ourselves from attack. With calm alertness, our straight backs allow us to be in control, to dominate, and to protect ourselves. When we bow, we give all that up. Our gaze turns downward and is limited to just a few feet before us, and we are much less adept at using our arms and hands or running with our legs.
Elsewhere in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 16a), there is a passage in which we learn that seven years after a person's death, his spine metamorphoses into a snake. Somewhat surprised to learn of this (and also, perhaps a bit skeptical), a challenge arises in the text, so the claim ends up being qualified. Not everyone's spine turns into a snake, we learn (phew!) - only those who do not bow during the blessing of gratitude in the Amidah. Mythically, the snake often represents the force of evil, a force that seeks to upend order and structure to bring benefit to itself – destructive energy that selfishly aims to stand up and overturn the forces of goodness so that it can control things it is not meant to, and to acquire all that it desires.
In its enigmatic way, I think the Talmud offers us compelling teaching about bowing, but more importantly, about gratitude, as well. A person who cannot bow – not just physically, but also metaphorically – does not show the gratitude that is appropriate when reflecting on all that they have received. That person is like a snake – a being unable to recognize what it means actually to receive, and that seeks to sow discord. As in the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake walked upright and ended up crawling on its belly.
By contrast, a person who knows when and how to bow knows when and how to rise up. That person knows that there are times when it is appropriate to express gratitude. Those are times when we say to each other, to the universe, to God, that we continue to receive so much, and it means so much to us. That even when we suffer or lose that which is important to us, even as we mourn it, we can still be grateful for what we still have.
In Jewish thought, gratitude is often associated with acceptance. At a time when we are forced to accept so much that is beyond our control, we can also turn our gaze inward and examine how we might just be grateful for what we have.
Rabbi Seth Wax is the Jewish chaplain of Williams College in Williamstown