Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

You may have heard this Jewish joke: On a hot summer day in the old country, a decrepit train was slowly making its way across the Pale of Settlement in Russia. It was hot, dusty, and miserable. What made things even worse was an old man in the back moaning. “Oy, I’m so thirsty, I’m so thirsty,” he repeated over and over. Finally, another passenger, sick of all the kvetching, said: “Here, have some of my water. Only please stop moaning!” The old man took a drink, and sure enough, for a few minutes he was quiet. Then he moaned again, “Oy, I was so thirsty!”

We Jews love to kvetch. If you stop and think about it, many of our holidays are like this. On Passover, we remember how we kvetched in Egypt. Even Hanukkah, initially a celebration of an unlikely military victory, became filled with stories of woe, like the tale of Hannah and her children, which made me sad in Hebrew school.

Yet there is something powerful about this remembered kvetching, and ironically, it has something to do with gratitude — or giving thanks. Remembering how we’ve suffered in the past helps us cultivate gratitude for the blessings we have right now. We repeat at our Passover Seder, “Once we were slaves, and now we are free.”

Rabbi Jay Michaelson writes that “most of us take for granted the freedoms we enjoy every day.” The injunction to remember and even imaginatively re-experience this past servitude helps undo the natural human inclination to take what is given for granted. In this way, gratitude acts as a counterweight to our built-in negativity bias. We’re evolutionarily wired to kvetch, to notice what’s wrong more than what’s right. That propensity served us well in primeval times: Those who didn’t get annoyed by the rustle in the bushes got eaten.

Nowadays, negativity bias makes us miserable. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said: when you get over a toothache, you might experience relief for a day or two. How many of us woke up today grateful for not having a toothache?

The intentional cultivation of gratitude – our daily blessings of thanksgiving for health – this intention of counting our blessings – is an essential practice of happiness. Most importantly, this remembrance of kvetches past, can, and ought to, inspire empathy and solidarity.

By remembering what it is like to be enslaved, I recommit myself to ending oppression everywhere. By recognizing my good fortune, I commit myself to lessening the suffering of others. “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” admonishes Exodus 22:21 — a lesson many still resist today.

That ethical imperative even applies to remembrance rituals themselves. For example, in our American holiday – the Thanksgiving myth is largely fictional, it is still rooted in European colonialism and the murder of too many Native Americans. So even as Thanksgiving invites gratitude, that gratitude, in turn, invites a reckoning with our American experience of how we treated native people.

In this way, the cultivation of gratitude expands beyond selfish appreciation – and moves us toward ethical responsibility. The remembrance of kvetching is the beginning of morality. All of this is especially true this year, when many of us may be gathering with family and friends in ways we didn’t last Thanksgiving. There is so much to be thankful for, as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic: the astonishing advances of science, the shared sacrifices we made to protect one another, the heroism of healthcare and other essential workers, and so much more. These are not to be taken for granted, as the foundations of Western civilization — reason, science, critical thinking, the social contract, the public square — are being attacked by forces of selfishness, ignorance, and conspiracy-mongering.

Now more than ever there is an ethical imperative to reflect, in the words of our Shehechiyanu blessing, on what really brought us to this moment, what sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

All of us are walking around traumatized by the past 20 months. We all have experienced grief, rage, and fear – that is often too painful to touch. Our vulnerability, our shared human kvetch, can bring us together. This Thanksgiving can be a time for that shared reflection. Most of us made it, though too many of us here and abroad did not. We were slaves, and now we are free. We were so thirsty, and now we can take a drink. Now is a time to give thanks, to grieve, and to recommit to the truths that sustain us.

B’vrachot, blessings,
Rabbi Dennis