Each morning on the drive to school, my son and I listen to the song “What are you thankful for today?” by Jewish songwriter Elana Jagoda. It is a song Cantor Eschler and I sing monthly at Tot Shabbat. It asks us to “share with me the blessings that have come your way.” After listing some basic things a person may be grateful for, it addresses the unspoken question—what if I am not feeling thankful—what if I am feeling kvetchy today? Ms. Jagoda sings, “What if you and a friend had a fight? Maybe you got hurt when you fell of your bike. Maybe mom and dad made a deal you didn’t like but be grateful…you have a plate full.”
It is a humbling reminder each morning that while there are many things I could chose to complain about, there is still much to be thankful for. The Israelites are known for their complaining. Jews like to kvetch. In this week’s Torah Portion, Behalotecha, we read that the Israelites, Hitavu vta’avah, they craved a craving. Sick of the tasteless manna, they remember the fish they used to eat in Egypt. As well as the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, onions and garlic, a virtual salad bar of choices. They consumed these foods when they were in Egypt…as Slaves… they complain to Moses that they are sick of the manna and that the water has a bitter taste. While it is pretty miraculous that despite being in the desert, God continually provides them with manna and water, eating and drinking are some pretty basic and primary needs—so their frustrating is understandable. In the Torah it says that the manna was like coriander seed. We are told that they boiled into and made it into cakes and it tasted like a rich cream. It appeared each morning on the grass like dew. Yet, midrashim, popular legend, teaches that the manna tasted like whatever the people wanted it to taste like-it was that magical. But we get it—they are sick of eating the same thing every day—and while thank God they have water to drink in the dessert and keep the hydrated-it doesn’t taste good. We’d be cranky too.
But as the song says, “be grateful, you have a plate full.” When a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment recently asked me how I was doing I said, “I can’t complain.” How could I complain to him? My problems were so minor in comparison. Truth is, of course I can complain-we are Jews-that we do. But however, I chose not to—and rather to be thankful.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes, “Judaism isn’t only what we do or believe, it’s what we choose to remember.” We construct our narratives based on our perceptions and our own personal experiences. The Israelites are no different. They have trouble expressing gratitude for the blessings they have already received—freedom from slavery, the gift of Torah, clothes and shoes that didn’t wear out as well as food to eat that miraculously appeared each morning to keep them alive. They complain because they aren’t satisfied with what they have. They want meat. They want fish. They want more. This is their current reality.”
While there are always things that we can find ourselves dissatisfied with and there always cravings for the things we don’t have-Judaism reminds to be grateful rather than kvetchy.
Each Shabbat we have an opportunity to count our blessings and to give thanks for them. All of our petitionary prayers are removed from the Amidah—We no longer ask for the things we need, we set aside a day to give thanks. But we don’t have to wait until Shabbat to count our blessings—prayers of gratitude are found in our daily liturgy. As we wander through our own wilderness, we have an opportunity to acknowledge all the spiritual as well as physical blessings we have been fortunate enough to receive. May we be more mindful in gauging what is important—what we want versus what we truly need. Only when we recognize the richness of our retained blessings can we gauge how fortunate we really are.