28 Sivan 5774
Even before I realized that Judaism was the path I needed to take, I was doing things that were Jewish. Gratitude has been one of the main ones, but it wasn’t always that way.
My partner, bless him, is an everlasting optimist. He rejects the negative in the same way I rejected the positive. He may get hurt sometimes, but he’s generally happier.
Two years ago this January, I posted something to my private LiveJournal blog about religion. I noodled about the idea that religion might be more about practice than belief – which, for me at the time, was a completely novel concept. I talked about studies I’d read that show that religious people seem to be happier and more grounded than people who are not religious. I wrote about AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically and what the author seemed to get out of following every rule in the Bible for a year (which he did not expect): more calm, more focus, and more aware of his life and what was going on around him. I admitted, even back then, that even if you do not believe in the deity in question, the practices do things to and for you that you can’t get otherwise.
I think this was a helicopter too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that religious people are happier, and that the reason might be the practices, rather than the beliefs, really shook me up.
That post also had me admitting that I had a problem with Something being out there that I couldn’t sense with my five senses, but instead of saying “and so there’s no proof of it,” for possibly the first time in my life I asked if maybe there was something broken about me, that I couldn’t sense this Something that everyone else seemed to be able to sense. And I admitted that my anger at people who believed in G-d (at the time) was because I was scared that their ability to sense/perceive G-d when I couldn’t might be evidence of me being broken or wrong – and I know I’ve already discussed the roots of that particular hangup here in this blog, since.
It was a big step for me at the time, realizing that I needed a religion that was practice-focused, even if I didn’t say it in quite those words. I did admit at that time that I missed the practice of religion, even though I was still totally turned off by the belief systems.
In the spring of last year, I attended Renaissance Faire several times during the season for the first time as a prospective volunteer, rather than just a patron. At the end of the Faire season I was invited into a Faire family, and the open acceptance blew me away. It blew me away, in part, because logically I saw no reason why I should have been invited or accepted, but I still was. I admitted at that time that “logic is how to go perfectly wrong with confidence,” and that with my doctoral degree in social science I really ought to have admitted that humans are illogical, and run with that, instead of insisting on logic. I apologized to people who I’d been angry towards because of their religious beliefs. And I said “My insistence on logic and my rejection of anything that didn’t have hard concrete proof? Was my own stupidity and arrogance and…. misguided protection of the vulnerable person inside me, that didn’t know how to believe or trust without organization and structure and proof and logic.”
Then, this past January, I realized I was only looking at the negative things in my life – money worries, problems with my health, issues with my students. I’d always called that “realism,” but let’s be honest here; it was pessimism. For me, the positive simply didn’t exist.
At the same time, my partner the optimist had read a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and he shared some of it with me. One thing that struck me was that research had shown that if you ask someone to list three things they’re grateful for every morning, their focus eventually shifts and becomes less pessimistic and more optimistic. If there had been no research, I probably would have pooh-poohed it, shrugged, and ignored it. But I’m a researcher, and so I am convinced by research evidence… so I decided to try it.
At first it was hard to come up with things I was grateful for. And it was equally hard not to think of them as trivial. But having a hot cup of coffee in the morning – I was grateful for that. I was grateful for this amazing apartment that my partner and I moved into last fall. I was grateful that I had friends who would reach out to me when I was hurting. So I began listing three things I was grateful for, every morning, and posting them to my Facebook as a sort of gratitude-accountability thing. At first, it felt really awkward – as any new habit does.
But then something amazing happened. I got happier. Slowly, but surely, I got happier. Sure, I still have my bad moments, but I can’t deny that I got happier by simply reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for.
How does this tie to Judaism? Well, most Jewish prayers aren’t about petitioning G-d for things. They rarely, if ever, say “G-d, do this or that for me, please.” They’re about praise and/or gratitude: Praised are you, G-d, for your works. Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who makes me sleep peacefully. Thank you, G-d, for being there for me when it hurts; for giving me a body that works; for this food which sustains me; for giving us the Torah at Sinai.
The Modeh Ani, one of the first prayers taught to children after the Sh’ma, is a waking-up prayer that starts the day with gratitude:
מוֹדֶהאֲנִילְפָנֶֽיךָמֶֽלֶךְחַיוְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּבִּינִשְׁמָתִיבְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּהאֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃
Modeh ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, raba emunatekha.
I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; your faithfulness is great.
So Jewish prayer is rarely a petition for help; it tends to be a thank-you note or letter to G-d instead.
And now, having gone through this gratitude practice for over half a year, I am ready to pray that way.
Maybe I had to go through these seismic shifts in order to find a religion that was based on practice and gratitude. Maybe I wouldn’t have found Judaism if I hadn’t gone through them. So that’s another thing to be grateful for, isn’t it? Thank you, G-d, for the seismic shifts. Thank you for your still, small voice. Thank you for being there and being patient. Thank you for my yiddishe neshama and my pintele yid.
I’m thankful for my readership – you folks. I’m thankful for my mind, that allows me to take these steps and make these changes. I’m thankful that the rabbi accepted me as a conversion candidate.
What are you thankful for today?