As we are preparing for Thanksgiving in our homes and with family and friends, I am thinking a lot about how Mussar (a Jewish practice devoted to cultivating personal character traits in our lives) gives us guidance in practicing gratitude. We may say our ‘thank yous’ all day long, but how do we really pay attention to and recognize what deserves our thanks, and when are we ‘blind’, covering up the blessings in our lives, hiding them from our own perception?
In the portion of Torah we will read the week of Thanksgiving, we read of our patriarch Jacob, who after running from messy situations much of his life, and facing the messiest one yet, is visited by an unnamed man. A messenger, an angel – and he wrestles through the night with this angel, and ultimately prevails. With that, the angel changes his name from Jacob to Yisrael – ‘the one who wrestles with the Divine’. Upon this, Jacob sees his surroundings in a new way, exclaiming “I have seen God face-to-face and have been spared.” He gives name to the place and time, calling it ‘Peniel’ – literally, the face of God. We are the inheritors of that name and that wrestling.
So, I wonder, what are the places and times in our lives that we would name ‘Peniel’? Where have we seen God face-to-face? What would that look like or feel like?
For me, this is about the practice of gratitude. Opening my heart and attention to the blessings in my life. Not just giving that lip service, but really changing my consciousness. This is not easy, to be sure. We are often distracted by external circumstances, and by the ‘stories that we tell ourselves’ – the internal running narrative in our heads – that influences how we see the world. We all do it!
Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, the author of a Mussar text called Chovot haLevavot [Duties of the Heart, 11th Century], offered three very contemporary-sounding reasons why we may not be able to fully appreciate our blessings. He taught that first, we are too absorbed in worldly pleasures which can never be satiated. Since we are always striving for “more” in the future, we often miss the “what is”, rather being stuck in the acquisitiveness and competition for “more.”
Secondly, ibn Pakuda continued, we become so habituated to the blessings that we actually stop seeing them! If we really open our hearts to recognize what is in front of us, we will come to know that God is there all the time if we just wake up!
Thirdly, because we often see the world through the lens of our own challenges and suffering, we lose sight of the good with which we have also been blessed. When we can look past our own suffering, we can recognize blessings as well, able to see the bigger picture of our world. This may be the hardest challenge: to recognize the good and practice Hakarat Ha-tov when times are hard, both personally and globally.
So, this Thanksgiving, how might we stay connected to that kind of attentiveness and experience in our consciousness and presence? Here are a few ways to embody the experience of gratitude as we prepare for our national holiday:
First, if you are going through a difficult time right now, reflect on your ability or challenge to feel gratitude amidst the sorrow or pain. What is the quality of the gratitude that you are able to experience? What might you do or think about in order to recognize blessing in your life?
Second, as a practical way to experience and embody hakarat ha-tov in getting ready for Thanksgiving, write at least one hand-written thank you note before Thanksgiving!
And lastly, at least, perhaps just include some focused time during the day/period of the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving for hakarat ha-tov – recognizing and acknowledging blessing in your life.
[If you like this kind of approach to and exploration of Jewish values in spiritual living, please join us any or every Wednesday morning at 8:45 a.m. for a half-hour of integrated Mussar practice and discussion. Or check the calendar for our monthly evening Mussar class – or be in touch with me!]