The first words we say in the morning are “Modeh ani”– I am grateful. When the Amida is repeated the prayer leader recites everything on behalf of the congregations save the modim passage — the prayer of thanks. Our lives are filled with blessings to recite — over food, over experiences, over nature, over one another — and each is an expression of thanks to God.
Gratitude is not an expression of satisfaction: you can be grateful and still believe that things are broken. Being grateful is not a state reserved for the good times of life alone. It is a disposition, not a judgment of your situation. We are grateful because we are alive, because each day unfolds with possibility, because to be grateful is to recognize how much in this world has been freely given to us even when things are tough.
Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday in its spirit and accords with the deepest wisdom of the Jewish tradition. For all that God has given us, for the sun of the day and the dark of night and our hope for tomorrow, we give thanks.
Much of our kindness comes from fear — if I do not act this way another person or group of people will think less of me or be angry at me. This is not necessarily a bad motivation; we are social creatures and a ‘decent respect for the opinions of mankind’ is written into our founding document. But it is not the highest motivation either.
Kindness that arises from a sense of sympathy or of justice is stronger and surer. Abraham does not greet the strangers because he fears they will disdain this inhospitable nomad if he stays in his tent. Jeremiah does not berate the people because he thinks they will kick him out of the prophetic circles if he keeps quiet. Such figures are ‘inner directed’ — their heroism arising from a deep sense of right and wrong, of goodness unrelated to the judgment of others.
In an age when we are seen and rated and judged every minute of the day, when social media scores our souls and calibrates our characters, the Torah is a powerful corrective. How you stand before your own deep values and before God is higher than the passing opinion of your neighbor.
Noah is often compared unfavorably to Abraham. When told the world would be destroyed, Noah did not protest. When told evil people in Sodom would be destroyed, Abraham sought to save them. The Torah says that Noah walked ‘with God.’ Abraham is told to walk ‘before God’ suggesting greater strength and self-reliance.
What is the source of the difference? The Torah teaches Noah was the first to plant vineyards and immediately became drunk on their product. He was intoxicated by the work of his own hands.
Abraham, according to the Rabbis, grew up as an apprentice in his father’s idol store. Yet he protested and recognized that idols were unworthy of worship. In other words, unlike Noah, he was not intoxicated by the work of his own hands. He kept God before him, and knew that what he made was not ultimate.
As our inventions grow more ingenious and more ubiquitous, Abraham’s lesson is more powerful than ever. So long as human beings are enamored with their own creations there is danger. If we do not allow them to control us, but worship the Creator above what we create, we will be true children of Abraham.
By 1815 Beethoven had avoided society for many months, yet he agreed to play his 27th sonata at the behest of Antoine and Therese Apponyi. The orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall records the scene in his memoirs. The Embassy was filled with eminences of the day: Goethe, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others.
Beethoven was almost completely deaf. Despite an enormous ear trumpet he could not hear the sounds of his own notes but heard them in his head and so began the sonata, composed a few months earlier, with deep feeling and expression. But the heating had thrown the sound of the piano off key and the great composer cannot hear the distortions. Unease spreads throughout the room at the cacophony and although there is some applause, Beethoven will never play in public again.
Each of us brings our internal music to the world. At times we discover sadly, that to others it is unwelcome, even dissonant. Life nonetheless demands that we continue to play and refine our harmonies. Beethoven no longer performed but did not stop composing. There is a palace, the Zohar teaches, that opens only to song. Perhaps in time, like the 27th sonata, our melodies will be heard, they will unlock gates and they will endure.
What is the purpose of a Messiah? Let us remind ourselves again of an answer written in an era of intolerance and hatred, the middle ages, from a man whose family fled the Almohad persecutions in Spain and settled in Egypt:
“The sages and prophets did not long for the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come.
In that era there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence Israelites will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed and will attain an understanding of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human mind, as it is written: ‘For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:9).”
So wrote our teacher, Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204