Imagine this: Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, notices that it is getting dark and realizes he should camp for the night. Although it isn’t the most comfortable location, he takes a stone, puts it under his head and falls asleep. Jacob has a fantastic dream, one familiar to man: a ladder appears, extending into the heavens with angels ascending and descending. God appears to Jacob in this dream and offers him a blessing. Jacob awakens from his sleep and exclaims “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it!”
Rashi suggests that Jacob’s exclamation really means – If I had known that this was such a holy place, I never would have gone to sleep! Another commentator suggests that Jacob really learns about what it means to be awake. Experiencing God means being present where we are and paying attention.
Judaism teaches that we are not to wait for Thanksgiving Day each year to be grateful. Every morning when we open our eyes and consciousness is restored, Jews are taught to respond with words of gratitude: “Modeh Ani l’fanecha – I thank You for giving me this day to be alive.”
We take time every time we pray to say “Modim anachnu lach ... We thank You for our lives, bound up in Your hand, for our souls which are in Your keeping, for Your miracles which are with us every day, morning, noon and night.” And on the seventh day, on Shabbat, we sing the words of Psalm 92: “Tov l’hodot l’Adonai ... It is good to give thanks to the Most High.”
Our prayers of thanksgiving enable us to appreciate and cherish what we’ve been given and open our eyes to the blessings in our lives.
In the book of Deuteronomy we read words that we also recite in the blessing after meals: “veachalta ve savata uverachta et Adonai elohecha, after you have eaten and are satisfied, bless Adonai your God.” Why are we commanded to thank God after we have eaten? It is easy for us to remember the blessings before we eat. When we are hungry, we are reminded of our desire for food – to bless when we see it steaming before us is logical. But after we have eaten, when the urgency of our hunger has passed we are then commanded to offer thanksgiving. It is harder to appreciate what we have been given, when all that remains are the dirty dishes. And so that is when we offer our gratitude. We are commanded to give thanks both when we are hungry and when we are full.
Birkat Ha-mazon, the blessing after meals concludes with these words: “Naar haiti gam zakanti ve lo raiti tzadik neezav vezaro mevakesh lechem, I was young and I grew old and I have never seen a righteous person so forsaken that his children beg for bread.” How can we say these words when we know they are not accurate? Some Jews even refuse to say them out loud, remaining silent for this phrase during a communal chanting of the blessing after meals. Every day, we do see righteous people who are lacking food, who are lonely, who are in need. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman offers a beautiful understanding of this verse. He re-punctuates, adding a period in the middle.
Naar haiti gam zakanti ve lo raiti.
Tzadik neezav vezaro mevakesh lechem
I was young and I grew old and I have never seen. Even a righteous person so forsaken that his children beg for bread.
When we read the verse this way, we are lamenting our blindness to the suffering in our midst. We have been oblivious to our privilege and our good fortune. We have been myopic to the misfortune of others. Our tradition teaches that appreciation is the antidote to entitlement and gratitude the force that opens our eyes to the wonders that fill our world.
May we pause to appreciate our privilege and blessings with grace and humility so that we too can exclaim with wonder: God was in this place and I didn’t know it!
SARAH MACK, rabbi of Temple Beth-El, Providence, is president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.