I asked our faculty a version of the question that is asked around many tables this Thanksgiving weekend: “For what are you grateful this year?” I asked with some hesitation, as frankly, I kind of dread that go around at the table, and in fact, I love the fact that it is not part of the tradition in the home where we typically have Thanksgiving dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving, and it’s not just about the food — especially as I am a vegetarian. I love what Thanksgiving stands for, and I love how it works when it actually does so, especially as large family gatherings can be complicated for most families. After all, the ability to feel and express gratitude are the two most regularly correlated capacities to people reporting being happy, and who doesn’t want to be happy?
So, if feeling and expressing gratitude is central to attaining happiness, and if Thanksgiving dinner provides the setting in which we can do that, you might reasonably ask me, “Brad, what’s your problem with asking people at the table to share something for which they are for which they are grateful?” And when you put it that way, my answer is, “No problem at all. In fact, I think it’s beautiful.”
What I don’t love is putting people on the spot, especially in what often becomes a version of the game “Can You Top This.”
That, or that it makes people feel bad if the thing for which they feel grateful doesn’t feel significant enough. The latter is especially important as there is zero correlation to greater happiness and gratitude for “big things” vs. gratitude for “small things.” In fact, gratitude practices work best when we allow ourselves to be grateful for “small things,” at least as often as we do for “big things.” That, and when we engage the practice not once a year in public but on a more regular basis, and just as often, in private.
So, now you might ask, “Brad, if all of that is true, why did you put the faculty on the spot as you did?” A fair question, to which I have two responses: First, Clal’s faculty is smart, compassionate, and brave, both spiritually and intellectually. Which is to say that I wanted to learn from them, and I knew that their responses would be Thanksgiving wisdom we all could use. And second, we live in what people regularly call “challenging times,” and that feels especially true right now. Those are often the moments when we need gratitude most, but locate it least, so it seemed especially necessary just now. Their responses more than justified the ask.
From Rabbi Elan Babchuck:
I’m truly grateful for the privilege to hold space for communities all around the world to process the events of these past 6 weeks. Their moral courage, emotional vulnerability, and unfailing hopefulness have been a buoy to my spirit during these trying times.
Surprisingly, I’m grateful for WhatsApp. While I am generally disinterested in social media, WhatsApp has allowed me to stay close with all of my family in Israel throughout these past 6 weeks. Growing up, all we had was a world-band radio, around which my whole family would crowd for hours on end while we awaited updates. These days, my family is just a text message away, and for that I am grateful.
From Rabbi Julia Appel:
I’m grateful right now for my Jewish communities and deep friendships, in this formerly foreign-to-me city and country (Toronto, Canada).
I’m also grateful for my Muslim colleagues and friends, who keep me compassionate and expansive when I feel my heart hardening and my view narrowing.
From Rabbi Irwin Kula:
I am grateful for my two grandchildren, Jemma and Zeke, who I get to see all the time and who remind me that pure wonder, unmitigated joy, and unconditional love are really real.
I am also grateful for the opportunity afforded by both the Source of Life and by incredibly generous and long-standing friends to embrace, reflect upon, and hopefully mitigate the sacred messiness of life, however painfully messy it may be.
From Rabbi Geoff Mitelman:
This year, I’m grateful for the many wonderful memories of my father, and the outpouring of love and support after he died.
I’m unexpectedly grateful for the rise of artificial intelligence, as it is causing us to think about both our human values, and our value as humans.
From Rabbi Joshua Stanton:
This year, I am grateful to have journeyed repeatedly to Israel and see our Homeland’s rebirth with my own eyes.
At this time, I am especially grateful for unexpected allies against antisemitism. They have brought me out of a sense of isolation and foreboding as an American Jew.
Notice how the answers range from intimate to global, from personal to professional, and from emotional to intellectual. There is no category that is out-of-bounds when it comes to that for which we can be grateful. For their reminding me/us of that alone, I am grateful.
Notice also that each answered twice, as each was asked about something for which they were grateful that might not surprise people and also for something that might. Why? Because I think that our willingness to be surprised in positive ways is especially critical when we may feel at least as surprised in negative ways. In fact, as interesting and wise as each of the answers is, it is their willingness to be surprised that is perhaps the most inspiring and, again, something for which I am grateful.
There are wonderful stories behind each of these very brief reflections that Josh, Geoff, Julia, and Elan have shared, and I encourage you to reach out and ask them to tell you those stories. But before you do, I hope you will take a moment, wherever and however feels best to you, to consider for what it is you can be grateful right now. Don’t worry about it “big” or “small,’ “profound” or “mundane,” just let it be yours.
And then, like the directions on the shampoo bottle say, repeat, only this time, dare to surprise yourself. That surprise gratitude may be the biggest gift you can give yourself this Thanksgiving, and it will be with you long after even the leftovers are finished.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.