May 16, 2008
11 Iyar 5768
All week I look forward to Friday night, in particular to Shabbat dinner with my family. With three small children, we rarely go out and we usually reserve this precious time for our immediate family to be together. Over a year ago, in order to involve my children more in the Shabbat dinner experience, my family started a tradition that we call “Todah Lashem” – “Thank you, G-d.” As part of our process of reflecting on the week and restoring ourselves, we go around the table and everyone (of all ages) shares something from the week from life in general for which he or she is grateful. After each person shares, we affirm his or her gratitude with a collective “achat (one), shtayim (two), shalosh (three): Todah Lashem!”
Recently, I have brought this tradition to my morning minyan. In our traditional liturgy’s spirit of beginning the day by waking ourselves up spiritually through morning prayers that thank, praise and acknowledge G-d, we try to awaken our gratitude by raising our consciousness of the little things in our lives for which we are (or at least should be) grateful. This week, during our Todah Lashem time, several students volunteered to share what they were grateful for: the first, for the beautiful weather; the second, for her dog; the third, for almost finishing an English paper, and so on. Suddenly, one student raised his hand to ask a question: “Why are we thanking G-d for her dog or for her finishing an English paper? What does G-d have to do with any of these things?” I let his question sit in the air before seizing the teachable moment. Were this young man to have asked the question cynically, he might have shut down the entire experience. Instead, his genuine curiosity uncovered a profound and unspoken theological question at the heart of blessings and prayer: what does G-d have to do with these seemingly mundane aspects of our lives and why are we thanking G-d for them?
I invited the students to respond and, like during last week’s discussion about Israel, they became my teachers. The students intuitively rejected the notion that G-d was literally or directly responsible for these worldly phenomena. Rather, they offered theological interpretations that made their blessings of gratitude more relevant. One student suggested that we are acknowledging and appreciating G-d as the Creator of our world and everything in it. A second student responded that we are thanking G-d for giving us as human beings the power, patience, and abilities we need to, for example, finish an English paper. A third student said that perhaps, even though we use the ritualistic formula Todah Lashem, this spiritual exercise does not actually have anything to do with G-d. Instead, she thinks, it is a way of awakening gratitude in ourselves, of cultivating appreciation in our hearts and minds. After a brief interlude of theological discussion, we returned to our morning prayers.
For only about seven minutes at around 8:23 on an average weekday morning, through one student’s innocent question and his classmate’s personal answers, these high school students took their place in the Jewish interpretative tradition and contributed their voices, minds and hearts to our timeless intellectual and spiritual conversation. Their insights, their spiritual intuitions and their openness to engaging with each other and with me bring our tradition alive and expand the possibilities for all of us to connect with and find meaning in traditional Jewish language and rituals. What a joy to start my day this way and to be reminded how special it is that we begin our day in sacred time and community.
As I enter Shabbat this week, I am filled with gratitude that our tradition helps us create the time and space weekly, even daily, for personal reflection and gratitude; and, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach and learn with a community of students, teachers and parents whose willingness to ask questions and to explore possibilities enrich my own spiritual journey. Todah Lashem.
Rabbi Marc Baker