Grate-Full.

Parashat Eikev

The blessing for lighting candles, Kiddush, reciting a memorial prayer on the Yahrtzeits of our loved ones — these prayers are fundamental to Jewish liturgy and Jewish ritual. Yet none of them are instructed by Torah. There’s only one blessing the Torah commands us to recite, and the instruction comes in Parashat Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ

עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God 

for the good land which God has given you.”

(Deuteronomy 8:10)

This line of Torah is the cornerstone of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. But, separate and apart from its mealtime context, in this passage we also hear the echoing voices of all the parents throughout the generations who have prompted their sons and daughters — at the end of a play date, when receiving a gift, after a lesson, a kind deed, a compliment. We hear that oh-so-familiar cue: “What do you saaaaay?” And the answer of every dutiful daughter and son who knows the routine and mumbles the expected response: “Thank you.”

But what exactly are we teaching with this routine? Or rather, we know what we’re trying to teach: Good manners and a sense of gratitude. But what are our children actually learning from it?

Two years ago, Larissa Kosmos wrote about these ubiquitous exchanges for The Washington Post. [1] The routine, she noted, felt just a little bit off. 

We’re coaching our kids to say thank you as merely a habit, akin to brushing teeth or clearing their dishes from the table, a behavior to be practiced at certain times. 

But saying thank you should involve more. Before our kids express appreciation, they should experience appreciation. The thank-you’s will always sound empty if they’re not weighted with gratitude. To that end, I, and it seems other parents, had been applying the wrong sort of effort: We were nudging our children to say words of thanks, but we weren’t nurturing feelings of thankfulness. It’s like sprinkling just the leaves of a plant when what’s needed is to water the roots.

When we return to this week’s Torah portion, we realize our tradition is sensitive to the need for gratitude beneath words of appreciation, as well. The Torah doesn’t say: “When you’ve eaten a sandwich, say a blessing.” Or, in more ancient parlance: “When you’ve eaten the equivalent of an olive or an egg…” — though the rabbis will develop Halacha in precisely this direction. But the Torah’s concern isn’t what we’ve eaten, or how much we’ve eaten, or even what specific words we say. What the text asks us to do is pay attention to how we feel. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai.” Are we satiated? Are we full? Then stop. Recognize all that allowed us to be so — the chefs, the farmers, the good land, and God who gave it to us. And when that feeling of fullness becomes a feeling of gratefulness, stop again, and express our thanks.

Realizing the importance of nurturing feelings over words, Kosmos changed her practice.

Expunging “What do you say?” from my parenting script years ago, I launched a new habit in situations when someone deserves thanks: I illuminate for my children what has just transpired. For example, I’ll say, “Dad spent time fixing your toy instead of relaxing” or “The librarian left the work at her desk to help you find that book.” Instead of cuing words to be spoken, I’m aiming to trigger something deeper and more meaningful — awareness.

To adults, these explanations amount to stating the obvious, but they are revelations to kids who take everything for granted, naturally, because everything is granted to them. Allowing my children a moment to process what they’ve just heard, to register that they’re the recipients of kindness, I follow with, “How does that make you feel?” My intention is to guide them from recognizing kindness to valuing it.

When they were younger, my kids usually responded to the question with a simple, if perfunctory, “Good.” From this humble seed, I tried to foster their appreciation. I’d suggest that they were lucky to have received that sticker from the pediatrician. Not every kid had just enjoyed a chocolate-chip-pancake breakfast at a restaurant with their grandpa. Whatever the circumstance, I’d point out that they had experienced special treatment, which was indeed something to feel good about — and thankful for. Then I encouraged them to share their thankfulness with the person who deserved to hear it.

I think we all share the author’s hope, that our children will develop into adults who don’t take others for granted; who recognize the kindnesses extended to them and take the time to articulate their appreciation. And it takes practice, intentional practice — not just for kids.

Author A.J. Jacobs set out on a gratitude journey, which he wrote about in the book Thanks a Thousand. It started when he paid attention to his cup of coffee one morning. Really paid attention. He really enjoyed that cup of coffee, and the local coffee shop in which he enjoyed it. He shuddered to think how his day might have gone without it. “How did I come to be able to enjoy this cup of coffee?” he wondered. He thanked his barista with kind words and a smile. And he thanked the proprietor of the shop, as well. And then he just kept going. He found the people who made the cup into which it had been poured, and that little protective cardboard sleeve that keeps us from burning ourselves — and he thanked them. He found the person who sourced and selected the types of coffee beans that would be used in his morning cup — and he thanked him. He went to the vast warehouse that stores the massive quantities of coffee beans imported into the country — and he thanked the workers there. He traveled to the coffee plantation in Colombia where the beans of the coffee he drinks are grown — and he thanked them. And the project just kept growing. “If something is done well for us,” he wrote, “the process behind it is largely invisible.” [2] So Jacobs sought to expose and recognize all that had been done to make this one, small, meaningful part of his day possible. “Gratitude is a discipline that needs to be practiced,” he says. “It doesn’t always come naturally, even to glass-half-full types.” [3]

But it is well worth practicing. Gratitude, thoughtfulness — it’s a gift to those we thank, and, sometimes, to ourselves, as well.

Rebecca Sabky was the director of international admissions for Dartmouth College. In her role, she would read applications from students all over the world — 2,000 applications, every year. The applicants, she notes, are always “intellectually curious and talented. They climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They’re the next generation’s leaders. Their accomplishments stack up quickly. The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit.” [4] But in all her years, one particular student stood out — because of a letter of recommendation.

Letters of recommendation are typically superfluous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. We regularly receive letters from former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes. But they generally fail to provide us with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of our community.

This letter was different. [It was from a school custodian.]

The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

This student was exactly who Dartmouth College wanted. And it’s who we want our children to be, as well. What we really want from our children is not, first and foremost, the proper pro forma responses. We want them to feel, be aware, notice what is happening around them with a sense of appreciation. And this is what Torah wants from us all.

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” And we are so filled with gratitude. In the words of our liturgy (Mishkan T’filah):

For the gift of life, wonder beyond words;

For the awareness of soul, our light within;

For the world around us, so filled with beauty;

For the richness of the earth, which day by day sustains us;

For all these and more, we offer thanks.

May words of thanks always flow from a grateful heart. And let us say: Amen.

 

[1] “I Stopped Forcing My Kids to Say Thank You, and They Learned True Gratitude,” Larissa Kosmos, The Washington Post, 9/29/17.

[2] A.J. Jacobs, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, p. 13.

[3] Ibid, p. 111.

[4] “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person,” Rebecca Sabky, The New York Times, 4/4/17.

2 thoughts on “Grate-Full.”

  1. Stephanie,
    Thank you so much for sharing your meaningful sermon. I will share it with others. Thank you for a lovely Shabbat,
    Rosalyn ✡️🙏❤️🤗

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rabbi Stephanie, thank you for reminding me that there is so much to be grateful for! I am a person who is big on thanks, sometimes to those who are easily overlooked, such as the people at the highway rest areas who are working to keep it clean for everyone. I gain great personal pleasure from looking for those not often thanked or appreciated. At temple, I always let our guards know how much I appreciate them being there for us, and also our kitchen helpers, etc. It only takes a moment to make their day.

    Liked by 1 person

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