Rosh Hashanah 5780 Day 2: Cup of Gratitude
As you may know, I spend an hour at Starbucks once a week in an attempt to make myself accessible to the congregation and the broader community. Now, for a shameless plug—please come by any Thursday from 8-9am to chat. While I often do end up speaking with someone, I also spend a lot of time watching people come in and out to get their morning coffee. Most people seem to want to get in and out as quickly as possible. And nowadays, with the app, you can pick up your coffee while barely interacting with another person. The whole process becomes as impersonal as buying something from a vending machine.
For the writer AJ Jacobs, buying coffee every morning without thinking much about it had become his routine. And for some time, he had noticed his own baseline grumpy, irritable disposition. He was spending too many of his waking hours letting petty irritations dominate his consciousness. Jacobs had read of the overwhelming psychological research about the benefits of gratitude. He hoped for a “mental makeover” by making gratitude a larger part of his life.
So, he decided to start with his routine morning coffee. He set out on the ambitious but imaginable task of thanking a thousand people who contributed in one way or another to his morning coffee. Jacobs chronicled the results in his recent book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.
A cup of coffee might seem ordinary. But it represents the apex of a vast global supply chain involving thousands of people and hundreds of different materials. More than two billion cups of coffee are consumed every day, and the industry employs 125 million people globally. So Jacobs had no trouble getting to his thousand thank-yous.
He started with the person he already encountered: the barista at his local coffee shop. After thanking her, they got to talking about her job. The barista, a friendly young woman named Chung, explained that her job is really about bringing joy to her customers by serving them coffee. She shared her frustration when that joy is not reciprocated, either by the occasional belligerent customer, or by the many others who cannot even be bothered to make eye contact during their brief transaction.
Jacobs was moved to learn how it felt to be on the other end of his daily coffee stop. He realized that he definitely had related to baristas and other service workers like vending machines and not human beings. This is the opposite of gratitude, which is about affirming something good and then crediting someone else for creating it. Gratitude begins by recognizing the humanity and contributions of people who might otherwise escape our notice.
But at least he already came into contact with the barista. To thank the many other people involved in producing his coffee, he would have to go looking for them. Which is what he did. Using his journalist research skills, he tracked down the people who chose the coffee beans and roasted them and transported them and harvested them in rural Colombia. He found the people who manage and ensure the quality of New York City’s water supply, which itself is a massive undertaking. He thanked the steel workers whose steel is in the coffee equipment and the loggers who fall the trees to make the paper cup. He tracked down the designers of the logo on the paper cup, and of its fancy lid and cardboard sleeve, which, by the way, is called a zarf. And on and on, to form the list of one thousand names in the book’s appendix.
AJ Jacobs, though, is not the first person to contemplate how the effort of many people produces something that is easy to take for granted. The Talmud records the comment of an ancient sage named Ben Zoma, who remarked, “How much effort did Adam the first man exert before he found bread to eat: He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked, and only thereafter he ate. Yet I,” Ben Zoma remarked, “I wake up and find all of these prepared for me!” (Brachot 58a).
As Ben Zoma’s statement reminds us, we all depend on many other people’s efforts to live our daily lives. And others certainly depend on us in turn. But it is easy in the hustle and bustle of life to lose sight of this fundamental reality. It is easy to think that we owe only financial payment to people who are just doing their jobs. Gratitude is about increasing our awareness of other people’s contributions and expressing that awareness in tangible ways. Gratitude, like any other virtue, is about both action and habits of thought and feeling. It operates in the moral economy of emotions and virtues, rather than in the financial economy of transactions and payment.
Gratitude helps us counterbalance a deficiency mindset. Simply put, there is no limit on what we do not have. We could always have more. This situation can lead to frustration and disappointment. Practicing gratitude shifts our focus from lamenting what we do not have, to appreciating what we do have. Ben Zoma, the same sage who expressed gratitude for the workforce that produced his daily bread, also taught: “Who is wealthy? Those who are happy with their portion.” Real wealth comes not from having more and more, but in appreciating what we already have.
Cultivating gratitude is fundamental to Jewish spirituality. As Jews, we take our name from our ancestor Judah, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for giving thanks. Jewish tradition encourages us to feel and express gratitude in several different directions.
First, our gratitude is directed to God, to the Holy Blessed One. Our siddur begins with the words “modeh ani l’fanecha,” “Thankful am I to You, living, enduring Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in compassion.” Judaism invites us to begin our day with gratitude for life itself. Our tradition also includes many brachot, many short statements that help us frame even the most ordinary experiences like eating with gratitude. These blessing practices draw our attention to the everyday miracles we might otherwise fail to notice and appreciate.
There are also strains in Jewish thought that encourage us to offer gratitude even to inanimate objects. A story is told about the Kotzker Rebbe, a 19th century Hasidic teacher, that whenever he wore out a pair of shoes, he would neatly wrap them in newspaper before discarding them. He would say, “How can I simply toss away such a fine pair of shoes that have served me so well?” (Morinis 65).
This story reminded me of Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying guru whose book and Netflix series this year encouraged people to let go of items that no longer “spark joy.” Her approach likewise suggests that, prior to discarding objects, we thank them for whatever lessons and usefulness they once offered. Kondo’s approach is based on Japanese Shinto spiritual traditions of seeing divine energy even in inanimate objects. Parallel traditions in Jewish mysticism likely inspired the Kotzker Rebbe to treat his old shoes with such respect.
The fact that we can offer gratitude to inanimate objects indicates that gratitude is not necessarily about making its recipient feel good. After all, what possible need or use could an object or, all the more so, God have for our gratitude. Rather, practicing gratitude is about cultivating our own character, about learning to live in the world in a particular way. As the Jewish teacher Alan Morinis writes, “Giving thanks can become a flow that waters the fields of life….it is a sign of a heart that has been made right and whole” (Morinis 65).
Gratitude toward objects and toward God can also train us to feel and express gratitude in the third and most difficult direction: towards other people. People are complicated. They are even really annoying sometimes. As AJ Jacobs learned, our society makes the efforts of those upon whom we rely for everything invisible to us, even when they are literally right in front of our eyes. And we can get so caught up in our own stuff that we can forget to appreciate the people around us. All of this makes gratitude towards others a challenge. It is something that has to be worked on, day in and out, until it becomes embedded in our souls.
Gratitude can be difficult enough when things are basically going well for us. But what about when they are not? Sometimes people who are suffering are told to count their blessings in a way that minimizes their pain, or stifles their desire to improve the situation. So how can we be grateful even when things do not look so good?
A few weeks ago, I visited a family gathered around its dying matriarch’s hospital bed. As I spoke with her son, the reality of his mother’s imminent demise hit him, and he began to cry. After a few moments, he collected himself and said, “Well, we had her for so many years.”
When done well, gratitude cannot coexist with resentment or selfishness. But gratitude can coexist with suffering. Our spiritual task is to do what that man did: to both feel our sadness, our anger, our pain, and also look for things we can be grateful for in the same situation. In that very Jewish way, we taste the bitter and the sweet simultaneously.
One way Judaism offers us to accomplish this is to shift our perspective. The Talmud relates a story about the great sage Rabbi Akiva, who once was traveling with a donkey, a rooster, and a lamp. He arrived at an inn, which could not accommodate him. Rabbi Akiva then had no choice but to camp out in an open field. Then, a lion ate his donkey, a weasel ate his rooster, and a strong wind extinguished his lamp. Nonetheless, Akiva maintained his hopeful attitude, saying “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for the good.” It then happened that a conquering army captured the city that had not accommodated him. Akiva, with no noisy animals or lamp to give away his location, was spared. “Didn’t I tell you, “he remarked. “Whatever the Holy One does is all for the best.” (Brachot 60b)
Now, our difficulties usually do not work out as neatly as in this fable. But Rabbi Akiva’s approach invites us to take a wider perspective, to question our assumption that we know what is good, and what is bad, before we know what the future will bring. As Alan Morinis puts it, “all we want is to affirm that in everything that happens there is the possibility of good, if only we could perceive it, and while it may not be visible now, perhaps in time we’ll see the bigger picture” (Morinis 71). This is a stance of faith. There is no guarantee that one day everything will make sense. But seeing the world this way, looking for the good even within the bad, can give us a more balanced perspective on our situation.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is instructive here: hakarat hatov, which literally means recognizing the good. Gratitude is precisely that: we look for and recognize the good we might otherwise overlook, but without pretending that bad things are good. We hold on to both. Neither negates the other.
So, practically speaking, how do we practice more gratitude? We don’t have to do what AJ Jacobs did, going around saying thank you to hundreds of strangers. Although if you want to try that, please let me know how it goes. But Jacobs also reports in his book and he and his mother are gratitude buddies. Every day, they email each other one thing that they are grateful for. Such a daily exercise helps train us in gratitude, and eventually we feel and express gratitude spontaneously. Other people keep a gratitude journal, where they write a daily log of their gratitude, or share gratitude around the dinner table. Or, you can make a habit of writing old-fashioned thank you notes.
Jewish tradition also offers simple and practical tools for cultivating gratitude, such as saying Modeh Ani when we wake up or brachot before we eat. Saying modeh ani is a great way to begin the day with gratitude. The words can be found in the inside back cover of your guide book. You can cut it out and put it next to your alarm clock or mirror, or as the lock screen on your phone, as a reminder to begin each day with gratitude.
The psychological research about gratitude has demonstrated that gratitude’s most important outcome is an increased sense of connection. AJ Jacobs put a limit of one thousand people to thank for his coffee after he realized that that the true number of people somehow connected to his coffee is actually infinite. For every person in the direct supply chain, there is everyone they rely on, and everyone they rely on, and so on. Jacobs writes, “If we connected the world with threads signifying gratitude, the result would be as thick as a blanket” (Jacobs 112).
Rosh Hashanah also reminds us of our connections with others and with God. One of the central images of the holiday is of all of creation passing before God like sheep or a brigade of soldiers, as our fate is determined for the coming year. Whether or not we accept the implied theology of that image, it reminds of us of all of creation being intertwined, connected, facing similar problems as we embark on a near year together.
Perhaps this is why we gather in such large numbers on these holidays. Our gathering here together, in this room, connects us to Jews gathering together today in similar rooms all around the world. Our gathering renews our connection to this specific community and to the Jewish people overall. It also offers a hint, an impression, of the metaphysical gathering of souls on the cusp of the new year. As we face the uncertainties of a new year, it helps that we do not do so alone, but rather together, with a community here beside us physically and with all of creation connected to us spiritually.
In this way, Rosh Hashanah counters the pervasive individualism of our times. It reminds us that we are all part of a much bigger web of humanity that spans across space and time. As we look back on the year that has passed, we can pause to take notice of everything that is good in our lives. We offer for gratitude for the many people who contributed in ways large and small to our lives. As we look towards the year ahead, we consider how our fates are intertwined with so many other people’s. And we strengthen our resolve to be a reason for other people’s gratitude.
In conclusion, I want practice gratitude myself. So thank you for listening to and considering what I have to say. Thank you for coming here so we can set out on this new year together. May 5780 be full of reasons for all of us to express gratitude.