‘Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m thankful before you’: these are the opening words of the day, the first prayer one’s supposed to say in those dim, semi-conscious moments when one’s not sure if it’s 4.00am or 7.00am, whether one’s woken too late and missed the alarm, or too early because the dog barked at a fox.
‘Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m grateful to you’: there’s an art to thankfulness. ‘You’ve forgotten the magic word’, people say to their children, probably thinking of ‘Please’. But ‘Thank you’ works at least as many wonders. And children aren’t the greatest culprits at failing to say it. Few of us are as generous at gratitude as we might, and ought, to be.
This week’s Torah portion describes the rite of Viddui Bikkurim, thanksgiving for the first fruits. In Temple times, villagers from across the Promised Land brought their best, first figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates to Jerusalem in decorated baskets and offered them before God with joy.
But being grateful isn’t a once-a-year affair. It’s an art, a grace, a wisdom at the heart of daily living.
Gratitude turns the ordinary into the special. It’s a way of appreciating every person, valuing the simplest object or experience. It’s the opposite of taking for granted, entitlement, greed and exploitation; of treating life as if it persistently fell below one’s expectations.
‘What have you learnt from your seventy-five years?’ an elderly lady was asked at a conference on spirituality in Edinburgh. ‘To be thankful’, she replied.
My teacher, Art Green, recently told me that if he had to reduce the entire morning service to just three minutes, he would still include Psalm 100, ‘a song of thanksgiving’. I’m thinking of him now, today, saying these words. His wife, whom he cared for with adoring dedication during all the years of her Parkinson’s, just passed away. Saying thank you isn’t always felicitously easy; it demands of us the good grace to let go, the capacity to be satisfied with life, to acknowledge that we’ve had our turn, and that we ourselves and those we love must leave the world for others, with generosity and forbearance.
Life doesn’t only rejoice the heart; it pierces it. Can I see the good, can I find blessing even then? Puzzling over the meaning of the word meodecha, generally translated as the injunction to love God ‘with all your might,’ the Mishnah (2nd century) plays alliteratively with the original Hebrew and demands: ‘With whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge and thank God most profoundly.’ It’s easier said than done.
I recall a senior consultant in palliative care saying: I’ve seen a child of nine approach death cheerfully content with what life had given him, and a man of ninety angry at what he felt he’d been denied.
I took a cup of tea with that lady at the seminar in Scotland. She said: ‘There’s a spiritual practice of never going to sleep before reflecting on five things for which you’re grateful’. I haven’t been consistent, but it’s a habit I’m trying to adopt.
Intriguingly, the Hebrew words modeh, ‘thanks’, and vidui, ‘confession’, derive from the same root. As we approach the New Year and Day of Atonement we’re called upon to improve our lives through repentance, confession and remorse. Viddui, confession, is the watchword of the season.
But it also means thankfulness, and there’s wisdom and humility in gratitude too. It’s at least as important to show those we love how much we appreciate them as it is to apologise for our faults.
There’s a beauty to people who know how to be thankful, even amidst distress. Their hearts are like a magnifying glass over life’s most ordinary details, a cup of tea, the sight of the moon, a moment of kindness. They teach us to notice, to appreciate; they turn life into grace.