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Gratitude - Ashray Yoshvay Vaytecha

By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Rosh Hashanah 5770/2009
Some look forward to long, grand sermons on the High Holy Days. Some pray that sermons are neither too long nor too grand. So today, I would like to try something different. A song. . .
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.1
Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz tells the following story:2
One evening while he is walking his beat, a certain very arrogant officer of the law comes upon a man in rags in a dark alley. The officer orders the man to emerge from the alley but he refuses. “I don’t know what I am going to do with you,” says the man in rags. Indignantly the officer replies, “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward.”
A sword fight ensues and as the officer thrusts his sword into the man the officer exclaims, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?”
The man in rags responds by giving the officer a curse: “The Curse of Blessings. Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die.” And then the man in rags disappears.
Although at first the Officer of the Law does not understand or believe the man in rags, by nightfall he knows the curse to be true.
This man, once filled with hubris and arrogance, and void of appreciation, starts to bless things because his life depends upon it. He blesses everything around him until he can find nothing new.
The Officer of the Law leaves his beat and travels the world, seeking more things, people, experiences for which he can praise God. He realizes the power in his words and the strength and faith he gives to others.
As the Officer of the Law approaches 120, he decides that he has seen enough of the world, experienced enough of life, and given enough blessings. He decides that this birthday will be his last. He reviews all of the amazing things he has witnessed and all of the blessings that he has given. As the sun is setting, the man in rags appears again. The Officer apologizes to the man in rags who responds:
“You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul, but when I looked at you, so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become!”
The Officer gasps and instinctively says, “You are blessed my God, ruler of the universe, that You have kept me alive and sustained me so I could attain this moment.”
A new blessing!
The Officer of the Law and the man in rags look at each other, neither of them knowing quite what to do.
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.♫
Ashray – it’s a catchy tune. And as the police officer experienced, it’s a catchy practice as well. As Jews, we should be especially good at discovering and expressing new blessings every day. The very word “Jew” means “praise”. When our matriarch Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she said, “ ‘This time I’ll praise God.’ On account of this she called him Judah.” “Judah” is related to the word “Todah” – praise or thanks -- and Judah is the origin of the word “Judaism”. We are the ones who praise; the ones who recognize the good in the world.
And we do give thanks. We celebrate special occasions throughout our year and throughout our lives. Our tradition teaches us that we are to recite 100 blessings per day!
A few weeks ago, I created a blog called “Expressing Gratitude” and I encouraged you through the email and through other TAE publications to post comments on the gratitude you find in your own life. In the days and weeks ahead, I encourage you to add your own thoughts to this blog (and you’ll see the address at the bottom of the service handout).3
You wrote:
“To express gratitude one must take stock of all the blessings that have fallen on us. (We) are blessed with children we are proud of, grandchildren we cherish, siblings who are dear to us and a home where we share happy times with them.”
“I am thankful for the love and caring of my family and friends and the joy of a fulfilling life in a wonderful community.”
“I am thankful for being present in the moment, realizing that life is a miracle.”
Take a moment to think of the “short list” of the things for which you are grateful, and if you are comfortable, share it with the person next to you.
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.♫
Now let’s be honest with ourselves. Gratitude is not always so easy. We could just as easily make a list of our burdens: health, finances, relationships, environment, human rights. It’s almost endless.
Last year on Yom Kippur, I stood here and spoke about my own pain. I let you into my and Corey’s life – infertility, miscarriage and discouragement.
And yet, I can stand here and recognize that although it has been a painful road (and one that is almost but still not quite over), I am truly grateful for every day of this four year journey. I am thankful to Corey, who I often describe as being the other side of my heartbeat. And to you – my community, my friends, my family – who have given us so much support and understanding. And to God, who has given me life, sustained me, and brought me to this time.
Our tradition teaches us to recognize what is good and to give blessings, even at those times when gratitude is not so easy.
When we tear a kriah ribbon at a funeral we recite: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, dayan ha-emet – “We praise you O God, who judges in truth.” We recite Kaddish: Yitgadal v’yitkadash
“May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified. . .”
On our blog, you wrote:
“I am thankful to all the people who gave me a second chance after my post divorce craziness and my bouts with depression, both of which could have turned people away. My oldest, nearest, and dearest friends stuck by me as I struggled to reinvent myself. They watched without judgement as I made mistakes. They opened their arms to me when I needed them. My new friends have accepted me for the person I have become and I am grateful to all for including me in their lives. I too am grateful for my struggles, for they have made me the new person that I am today.
“Having recently experienced heart surgery I was so moved by the many thoughts, prayers, and offers of assistance sent to us by friends and family. (My wife) and I are so grateful for all the love sent our way. If I had known I would get this much attention, I'd have done this long ago.”
Let’s make another list – this time we won’t share it: Those things that were so difficult at the time but from which we discovered a blessing.
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.♫
I believe there are three reasons we sometimes have such difficulty recognizing the good in our lives and offering thanks and praise.
The first reason is that we are often floating along at the wrong altitude. We get mired in the rawness of life. We expend so much energy on our micro view that we miss the bigger picture.
It is sometimes difficult to recognize the good in life because we are looking at too small a picture, hovering at too low an altitude, or looking in the wrong place. We are expecting other people to create our happiness or material items and activities to provide joy.
The founder of Chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, tells the story of a diamond merchant and a thief. The merchant has an amazing diamond and the thief is obsessed by it. In fact, he tries to steal the diamond for years without any success. One night, they reach an isolated town with one inn. As chance would have it, the inn keeper only has one room left and they have to share. The two men bring their belongings to the room and then go downstairs to eat dinner. During the meal, the thief slips a potion into the merchant’s drink which an hour later renders the merchant completely unconscious. The thief wastes no time looking for the diamond. He looks through all of the merchant’s suitcases and pockets, and even in his shoes. High and low he looks . . . but nothing.
Just before sunrise the merchant shakes off the grogginess and stretches and sees the mess all around him and the thief snoring only a few feet away. The merchant quietly gets out of bed, reaches into the thief’s own bag, where the night before he had hidden the precious diamond. After all, it was the only place he thought the thief would not look.4
Gratitude does not depend on acquiring something good. Instead, it is about recognizing what we already have, even if hidden in the most obvious of places.
You wrote:
“After reflecting on the past year my gratitude has taken on a new meaning. I travelled to a faraway place in the world, where I saw poverty that can not be explained. I met women who have to hide their faces under a dark veil, I met a small child stricken with AIDS. So to be grateful for my life is an understatement.
Sometimes we are missing the big picture. Sometimes we are looking in the wrong places. And sometimes, we are simply mislabeling our gifts.
We think that we are entitled to certain things: a house, a car, food. c We think that we are entitled to certain relationships: love of family, support of friends, respect from strangers. May the great name We think that we are entitled to good weather and good health. May the great name But if we look at these things as entitlements and we lose them or they do not live up to our expectations, we are left with resentment. May the great name
I’m owed these things! And yet, I’m getting the short end of the stick!
If we simply adjust our definition, however, we may begin to look at the world through a different lens:
A house, a car, food – these are blessings, these are gifts.May the great name Love of family and friends; courteous treatment by others – these are blessing and gifts.May the great name Beautiful weather; a healthy body – these too are blessings and gifts.
The change might be semantics, but our language gives us our lives. If we embrace this new definition in our hearts, it has transformative possibilities. If we lose something we think we are owed we are likely to feel wronged and that bitterness will breed more upset in our hearts. If we lose a gift or a blessing, we are more likely to feel sad than bitter. We are more likely to mourn than stew in our resentment.
Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz teaches: “From sadness there is recovery. The process is called mourning. After a loss, trivial or profound, one learns how to stand in balance, albeit in a different world, and continue growing, finding new experiences of the miraculous, evoking still new blessings.”5
I saw an interview sometime this past year with a man who, due to an amputation, only had one arm. The interviewer noted:
“Obviously you are missing your arm.”
To which the man immediately replied with a smile on his face: “I’m not missing my arm. You are missing my arm.” What goes missing in a life without gratitude? What do we allow in when we open ourselves to gratitude? What is the opportunity in opening our life to being thankful, even in the toughest of times?
Yes, gratitude even in the toughest of times. Admittedly, I can not fully know your pain or suffering first hand. And, I’m sure that there are those among us today who think I’ve got some chutzpah standing up here and suggesting you find gratitude in a time of distress.
I received this in my inbox just yesterday morning:
Dear Rabbi Riter,
Thank you for the opportunity to write on your new blog of gratitude. I have sat down many times this week to write something, but to be honest, I am having trouble, with my life the way it is, finding gratitude for much. And then I started to write a list and I started to see so many God-sends I had not even noticed because I have been so focused on my problems and not even open to seeing anything else. I have many things to be grateful for and just sitting down to make a list has filled my heart.
The officer of the law in the story was arrogant and had no real idea of the blessings all around him and thus had no soul. Is that how we want to live? Is that how we want to die?
One of the amazing things I have discovered about gratitude is that it grows. I took on a practice earlier this year while waiting in line for an airport shuttle. It was late, cold, the air was filled with exhaust fumes, and every shuttle van but my own drove by. And . . .I started making a list of blessings: My wife, my parents, my friends, my health, my ability to experience and stretch and grow and be grateful.
Today, I ask you to do the same. Take on the practice of hakarat hatov – being grateful – from now through Yom Kippur. Look around your life. Recognize the good; identify it, speak it, make it real. It is sometimes not enough to just give a mental nod. Write it down instead or tell someone. Please, comment on the blog that is printed on the bottom of the blue handout. I think you will find that just as the life of the Officer of the Law opened up – and he experienced the world in a new beautiful way -- so too can we. It is a story. AND, we have the power to make it come alive and to live it ourselves.
On the blog, you wrote:
“As the High Holy Days grow nearer, I am grateful for my difficulties and obstacles, for those I perceive to have wronged me, for the times I have fallen short of who I can and should be and wronged others, and for the challenges in my life. For these will give me the opportunity to create for myself and others a better way of being and a better world for all of us.”
“Whether things are going well, or whether there is uncertainty or failure, I know I will always have the opportunity to keep on going, or try again to make things better. For this I express my eternal gratitude.”
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.♫
We have one more list to mentally write today: Those things we have placed in our own way:
Miring ourselves in the micro view rather than the macro. The entitlements that obscure the blessings. The roadblocks that we create for ourselves. And finally, the possibilities that are waiting for us.
O God, You and I know that my life is not always perfect. There is sickness, there is loss; financial struggles; sometimes I don’t live up to my highest possibility. And yet, I know that all of my difficulties come with a fork in the road. And it is always my choice which path to take. As we enter this new year with Your support, I will strive to create each circumstance that comes my way, both the beautiful ones, and the ones that challenge me, as an opportunity to:
See all of life as a gift, An opportunity to train myself to recognize the good, And an opportunity to embrace these words:
♫Ashray, ashray, ashray yoshvay vaytecha
Joyful, joyful, joyful are those in your house.♫


1 The Ashray text is from our liturgy. The melody is composed by Reb Shohama Wiener.
2 Mitchell Chefitz, The Curse of Blessings, pp19-23.
3 All congregant quotes are posted on www.expressinggratitude.blogspot.com
4 Taught by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Jewish With Feeling, p234.
5 Rabbi Goldie Milgrim, Seeking and Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction, p264.
Please add your comments to our blog: www.expressinggratitude.blogspot.com
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