If you could boil down being Jewish into a single word, what would it be?
This evening, I want to tell you what I think it is. But before I do that I want to acknowledge that there are many famous Jews who have already tried to boil down the meaning of being Jewish into a word, but because they were mostly rabbis--and we’re not exactly known for our brevity--they found this particular exercise challenging. The sage Hillel who once very cleverly said that the essence of being Jewish was “ve-ahavta lerayacha kamocha,” loving your neighbor as yourself,” and then decided to add one more sentence: “the rest is go commentary: go and learn.” The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber once that being Jewish meant that, “after being the children of God, was realizing that we were all the brothers and sisters of one another.” A beautiful sentiment, but again, he couldn’t do it in a single word.
Well tonight, now having made a nod to these valiant efforts, I want to share with you the essence of being Jewish in just one word: and that is the hebrew word Yehudi, which is not only the tribe of Judah, but comes from the word hodaah, which means gratitude. That’s why tonight I want to make the point that it is this word, gratitude, that is the one word definition, if not the essence of what it means to be a Jew.
Tonight, we are not only Jews because we’re named Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. We are Jews because we are must be the most grateful, most appreciative, people in the world if not human history. As Jews, we have seen it all. We lived through the Expulsion from Spain to the Holocaust. But what sustained us, what kept us going, is Yehudi, we are the people who nonetheless were able to find good in the world. And that’s what we do. Have you ever wondered why there are so many Jewish comedians? It’s because even when things were terrible, when we were miserable and persecuted, we strove to find a way to laugh.
It is gratitude that is the foundation of everthing we do. Kook Arayn: Come and take a look at our practices. Nearly every spiritual practice that Judaism is somehow based on our trying to increase level of gratitude in our lives. The rabbis charge us to say 100 blessings a day. Why? Because even the small things, like smelling fragrances, or eating a piece of bread, are reasons be grateful. One of my favorite mishnayot, rabbinic teachings, says that even if you are impoverished and you get your meal from the tamchui, from a soup kitchen, you must still give tzedakah every day. Why? Because even when you are taking tzedakah, when you have nothing, you still have to find a way to be grateful for what you have. Kabbalists, Jewish mystics come up with a spiritual practice called hakarat hatov, or literally, taking a moment out of your day each day, to recognize, even when things are awful, the good you have in your life.
And this is why my friends, contrary to the conception of a Jewish history of depression and sadness, what we should instead see ourselves as a part of is a long link in a chain of finding ways be grateful for what we have in times of hardship. Because we are Yehudim, the people of gratitude. When we talk about the first Jew to come to the new world, in 1492, we speak about Luis de Torres, a converso, a secret Jew, who was the chief interpreter on Columbus’ ship. What we don’t talk about the fact that in all likelihood he was fleeing his life from the Inquisition that also began in 1492, and that’s why he was on the ship in the first place. During the Shoah, the Partisans would proudly declare despite the mass atrocities of the world around them, Mir Zaynen Do, that they were still here, living to fight for another day. Because that is all Jews know how to do: it is in our DNA, we always strive, even in the worst of times, to find a silver lining.
In her now famous Yale University Class called “Finding Happiness,” one of the key messages that Professor Lourie Santos conveys to her students is that if you cannot find a way to be grateful for what you have, then you will never be happy. And so as Jews, as Yehudim, my message for you this evening is all the more so: that we, that in this coming new year, even when times are hard, we must find a way to look at our lives and to be grateful for what we have.
Now tonight as we approach the new year I know that we arrive at Erev Rosh Hashanah filled with all different kinds of emotions. And that while for some of us, finding gratitude may be easy, for others of us, especially when life has been unkind to us, gratitude may be elusive.
Yet what I have discovered in my work, and what I want to share with you, is that gratitude is often not about what you have, a state of being, but about how you see yourself. There are people who have everything and believe that they have nothing, and there are others in this world who truly have nothing, but who are grateful, and see everything. There are folks who may see affluence in wealth, but not affluence in time, and folks who are affluent in time, but not affluent in wealth, and there are folks who struggle to find a balance. Yet when you find gratitude in your soul for what blessings you do have, Pirkei Avot tells us, sameach bechelko, we are truly ashir, wealthy, because we are content with our lot.
Tonight, my closing prayer for all of us, as we enter the year 5779, is that no matter what kind of year we’ve had, as we enter the new year, is that if we seek ways to be better Jews, and to live better lives, we must imbue gratitude as a spiritual practice. That is our calling. That is our name. We may not all be tzitzis wearers. Our world and lives may not be perfect. But we may nonetheless all be the best Yehudim, the best Jews we can, by finding gratitude in our hearts.