On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montreal

This is the sermon I offered this morning at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Thanks so much for welcoming me, UU community of Montreal!


Il_fullxfull.364236236_kx72On Gratitude and Thanks


מֹודה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיָך, מֶלְֶך חַי וְַקּיָם, ׁשֶהֶחֱזְַרּתָ ּבִי נִׁשְמָתִי ּבְחֶמְלָה. ַרּבָה אֱמּונָתֶָך!

"I give thanks before You, living and enduring God.
You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!"

This prayer is part of Jewish morning liturgy. It's in our prayerbook, and is often recited at the beginning of communal morning worship -- though in its most original context, it's meant to be recited before we even make it to synagogue in the morning. Modah ani is something we're meant to say upon waking up, first thing.

Some of you may have grown up reciting the 18th-century classic "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep" before bed. That prayer has its roots in the Jewish custom of the bedtime Shema. Before bed, we say a prayer reminding ourselves that we place our souls in God's keeping while we are asleep. And when we wake again in the morning -- and, mirabile dictu, we're alive again! -- we offer this prayer of gratitude. Thank You, God, for giving my soul back to me! Great is Your faithfulness!

I'm often struck by that line. "Great is Your faithfulness." Often we think of faith -- in Hebrew, אמונה –– as something we're meant to have. We have faith in God. But in this prayer, it's the other way around. God is the one with emunah. God has faith in us.

There's something very powerful for me about asserting that, first thing in the morning. Today is a new day, rich with possibility. I am awaken and alive; I am a soul, embodied. And, my tradition teaches, God has faith in me and in what my day might contain.

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Four worlds gratitude practice

A moment of gratitude for this body.
Notice what it feels like to be in your body today.
What sensations are you experiencing? Which parts of your body are clamoring for attention?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for being alive in this body right now.

A moment of gratitude for emotions.
Notice all the emotions which arise in you.
Love, joy, hope, fear, sorrow: sift through them like jewels falling through your fingers.
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of emotion.

A moment of gratitude for thoughts.
Notice what thoughts are swirling in your mind.
What stories have you been telling yourself about things past or things which haven't yet happened?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of the intellect.

A moment of gratitude for spirit.
Notice the spiritual impact of this meditation: what has it opened up for you?
For the moments when you feel spiritually alive, and the moments when spirit feels inaccessible:
if you can, cultivate gratitude for the life of the spirit.


This is the gratitude practice I offered at the close of this week's Friday morning meditation minyan. (More or less. I wrote it down afterwards.) It's based on the four worlds paradigm which is so central to (my understanding of) Jewish Renewal. And it's based in my own perennial need to kindle and sustain gratitude. Please feel free to use or adapt it if it speaks to you. Shabbat shalom!


Modah ani with floating rainbows

There was rain last night, so when Drew and I step out on the deck this morning, everything is wet, though the sky is blue streaked with cloud and the trees are green and gold in the morning light.

I pick up Drew's little chair and turn it upside-down so he won't try to sit on it and wind up soaked (his understanding of cause-and-effect leaves something to be desired) and, to distract him from the chair I know he wanted to play on, I pick up the container of bubbles on the table and ask if he wants me to blow some. He makes an eager sound of assent, so I unscrew the cap and start blowing bubbles.

The ones which land on the deck don't immediately pop, thanks to the rainwater; instead they form perfect half-bubbles, irridescent domes. For a while Drew walks around and pokes them, popping them one by one. Then he notices his little push cart, and begins happily pushing the cart back and forth across the deck.

I keep blowing bubbles, watching them float through the morning air. Drew pushes his cart through a shower of rainbowed globes. I can see our reflection in the biggest bubbles for an instant before they pop. I blow a stream of bubbles angled up into the sky, and they float, dipping and dancing, irridescent in the sun. That's when I realize that these bubbles, this moment with my son, is my first morning prayer of this day.

I sing modah ani, pausing to blow bubbles between each line. When Drew hears me singing, he stops pushing his cart and looks up at me, and I sing for him; I sing for the beautiful world; I sing for the Holy Blessed One who created all of this just for me.


This is spiritual life

On the first day of the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program which I began in early 2009, my spiritual director described what her spiritual practices had been like before she had children, and then she talked about how her spiritual life inevitably changed once her kids came on the scene. She was clear that spiritual life does continue; but she noted that it may need to take different forms than it did before. (She said other things too, but that was what really struck me. I was newly-pregnant then, and did not know that I would miscarry a few days later, so I was hyperconscious of everything having to do with prospecive parenthood.)

I remember hearing similar stories from Reb Marcia, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program. At one point during DLTI, she reminisced to us about davening while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids to take to school and about singing along with a recording of the morning liturgy in the car. She told us those stories by way of encouraging us to get Hazzan Jack's Learn to Daven! cd and to listen to it often -- and she's right; it's a great way to become comfortable with the full text of the classical morning service -- but I think of her exhortation often now when I daven along with Reb Shawn Zevit's Morning I Will Seek You in the car on the way to daycare.

It's easy to think of spiritual practice as something we do when we can dedicate space and time away from our "regular lives." If I could just get on top of my to-do list, then I could make time to pray. If I didn't have dishes to wash, laundry to fold, thankyou notes to write, a desk to tidy, bills to pay, emails to return, blog comments to moderate.

But all of life can be spiritual life. I can begin my day with modah ani; I can say the blessing sanctifying the body as I moisturize my skin in the morning, or as I use the bathroom, or as I change diapers; when I see my son beginning to walk, I can follow the morning liturgy in thanking God Who makes firm our steps.

There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

There's never enough time to get wholly on top of the to-do list. (If nothing else, cooking/dishes and laundry are self-generating tasks: cook one meal and eat it, and the next day you're still going to be hungry again.) The time to study a little Torah, or to pray, or to meditate, can't be "when everything else is done" -- because everything else is never done. Besides: Torah, prayer, self-care are important. More important, maybe, than the other things on our to-do lists a lot of the time...though most of us don't inhabit a paradigm where that perspective is commonly shared.

The real challenge of spiritual life -- for me right now, anyway -- is remembering that all of life is spiritual life. As I drive wherever I'm going, God is all around me. God is manifest in the people standing in the grocery check-out line or on the airplane jetway. Every step I take is an opportunity to be mindful of one foot, and then the next; every breath I take is an opportunity to inhale God in, and exhale God out. Spiritual practice doesn't just have to mean meditation, or yoga, or enfolding myself in tefillin and tallit and spending quality time with the siddur. Washing dishes can be a spiritual practice. Babyminding can be a spiritual practice. Self-care can be a spiritual practice.

There's a Hasidic idea of avodah b'gashmiut, service or worship through corporeality, which I love (and which I've blogged about before.) That idea goes like this: physicality, the mundane world in which we all operate, isn't an obstacle to connecting with God -- it's the very vehicle through which we can have that connection. Tending our bodies, tending our children, eating food and clearing the table: all of these are opportunities for spiritual connection. In Hasidic language, the task is one of "elevating the sparks" -- finding the holiness latent in each of these things, and lifting it up to heaven.

Every day is full of sparks waiting to be lifted up. Whatever you're doing right now can be part of your spiritual life too.


Melodies for gratitude

A while back, I posted about setting the Modah Ani -- the morning prayer for gratitude -- to the tune of a Richard Thompson song. After that post went live, a number of people wrote to tell me that they'd never heard Modah Ani before and that they appreciated hearing it. I love Modah Ani -- it's probably the prayer I say most often -- and I wanted to share a few other tunes here for anyone who's considering adding this to their morning routine.

Modah Ani is the prayer for gratitude, meant to be recited first thing upon waking in the morning. ("Modah" is the feminine form of the first word, "Grateful;" men recite "Modeh ani" instead.) Here's the prayer's text in full:

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך.

Modah ani l'fanecha, melech chai v'kayam, shehchezarta bi nishmati b'chemla, rabbah emunatecha!

("I am grateful before You, living and enduring God, that you have mercifully restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!")

On my first trip to Elat Chayyim back in 2002, I attended a contemplative morning service led by Rabbi Jeff Roth. I remember him telling us that he wanted us to focus on gratitude while we were singing these words, and that if we couldn't access gratitude in that moment, then we might choose to focus on praying that someday we might be able to feel grateful again. His version is extremely simple: just the first two words of the prayer, repeated again and again. It's also a round, though this recording is just me singing solo, so you'll have to extrapolate how the round would sound:

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Prayer life changes

Here's what I wish I had been taught about prayer: prayer life always changes.

My teacher Reb Zalman teaches -- and I agree -- that it's important to have a daily connection with God. If the word "God" is uncomfortable for you, try: a daily connection with something deep within you, or something far above you; with your highest self and your highest aspirations; with the force of change in the universe; with love; with yourself; with your community; with your ancestors; with holiness immanent in creation; with holiness which transcends creation. (As far as I'm concerned, "God" is shorthand for all of those things and more.)

There are all kinds of ways to connect with God every day: meditation, singing, blessing practice -- and, of course, prayer. The Hebrew word which means "to pray," להתפלל, comes from the root meaning to judge oneself; in that sense, classical Jewish prayer is not only liturgical but also introspective. (I know that many of y'all who read this blog are not Jewish, but hey, I'm coming from where I'm coming from -- feel free to share your own traditions' perspectives in comments.)

Most liberal Jews are most familiar with Shabbat prayer, which is primarily a communal endeavor; we gather together to celebrate the blessing of rest. But in Jewish tradition, prayer doesn't just happen on Shabbat. Shabbat prayer and festival prayer are the jewels which stand out against the backdrop of daily prayer. Daily prayer allows us to say "thank you" (as we do on Shabbat) and also to say "please" and ask for what we need (which is more of a weekday endeavor.) Daily prayer allows us to remind ourselves to notice the miracles of each day: the miracle of waking, of having a body which works (to whatever extent that is true for each of us), of encountering wisdom teachings which come from beyond ourselves.

The siddur (prayerbook) collects some of the greatest hits of Jewish prayer from the last two thousand years or so. We're a tradition which loves words, and our prayerbooks grow by accretion. One generation's innovation becomes the next generation's familiar, classic text without which no service would be complete. (You may have experienced something like this on a small scale with the Passover haggadah. In our own generation we've seen all kinds of creative additions, prayers and poems and Miriam's Cups, become elements without which a seder wouldn't feel right. The siddur is like that, but even more so.)

If you're interested in immersing in the words of the siddur, kol hakavod ("all the dignity/honor" -- or, in modern parlance, "props") to you. I can recommend several. Reb Zalman's Sh'ma is a beautiful English-language siddur aimed at introducing the newbie to daily Jewish prayer. I myself use the Koren siddur most of the time, which is available in a bilingual edition though I use a pocket-sized all-Hebrew edition. I'm also a big fan of Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur, which is visually quite lovely and also contains some excellent contemporary poetry. If you want to go really deep in learning about Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Larry Hoffman has written an excellent series called My People's Prayer Book -- the volumes aren't themselves prayerbooks, but they're great for learning about the liturgy. (If you want to go really deep, I recommend DLTI.)

But here's the big thing I want you to understand: whatever it may be, your prayer life is going to change.

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A Richard Thompson 'Modah Ani'

Last night a friend and I caught the Richard Thompson Band on their Dream Attic tour. This is, I think, the fourth time I've been lucky enough to see Richard play; I've seen him twice with his band, over the years, and once on the Thousand Years of Popular Song tour. (I think I was the only person in the audience that night who screamed with joy when he played "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo." What? I used to sing it with my madrigal ensemble!)

Last night's show had a somewhat unusual set list, to my mind. The first set was the entirety of the new album ("even the bad songs," Richard quipped, which got a laugh) and then the second set was an assortment of favorites from recent albums and from his amazingly deep back catalogue. There's a review of the show here at Masslive, for those who are curious.

Unsurprisingly, I woke up this morning humming RT songs. Specifically, I was humming one of my favorites among the new tunes he played last night, a track called "Sidney Wells." The song is in 9/8 time, also known as "compound triple time", used in slip jigs -- or so Richard told us last night.

The lyrics are somewhat grisly, but since the new album is relatively new to me, I don't know most of them by heart yet. And I often sing in the shower -- usually some variation on morning liturgy, to keep my head and heart in the right place while Drew entertains himself with toys outside the shower door. Can you see where this is going?

Yep: this morning in the shower I wound up setting Modah Ani, the morning prayer for gratitude, to the tune of Richard Thompson's "Sidney Wells." Drew seemed to like it, and I'm tickled by the repurposing of the melody, so I'm enclosing the mp3 below. If you're ever looking for a new Modah Ani tune, feel free to add this one to your repertoire!

I'm also enclosing, below, a recording of Richard Thompson and his band performing the song so you can see where this melody is borrowed from. (I couldn't find a video of the band performing "Sidney Wells," so the YouTube video below is visually uninteresting -- just a still image -- but the music is there.)

The tradition of using popular melodies for liturgical purposes is an old one, but this is the first Jewish liturgical use of Richard Thompson that I know of; if there are others out there, please enlighten me!

ModahAni9:8



Gratitude

When I first went to Elat Chayyim in 2002, back at the old venue in the Catskills, and first experienced the discipline of heartfelt daily prayer as an adult, I was struck by the modah ani prayer for gratitude with which we began our morning worship. It was one of the first prayer practices I adopted. These days I try to say modah ani every morning first thing: if it's not the first thought in my mind when the alarm goes off, I try to make it at least my first intentional or conscious thought as the shower wakes me from sleep.

Cultivating a mindset of gratitude is one of the reasons why I value my prayer practice. So much of Jewish liturgy is aimed at saying "thank you" in one way or another: thank you for this body, thank you for the soul which enlivens it, thank you for the fact that I am alive today. Thank you for the food we're about to eat; thank you for the food we've just eaten. Thank you for giving us the discernment and consciousness we need in order to mark and sanctify time. Thank you for the rhythm of weekdays; thank you for Shabbat which interrupts that rhythm. Thank you for the wisdom teachings which call us beyond ourselves.

There are times when it's hard for me to feel grateful. When I'm sick or hurting or in pain, or when something has gone wrong which clouds my ability to access thankfulness. But the practice of saying thank you doesn't stop on those days. In those moments, says my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth, the best we can do may be to pray for the ability to feel gratitude at some future moment, and to say our words of gratitude in hopes that speaking the words will cause the emotion to arise in us. We don't only get to say "thank you" when we feel like it. My mother, who did her best to teach me proper southern manners, would surely approve.

In the United States today is a day for giving thanks. I have an enormous amount for which to be thankful today. Family and friends, our home and the hills, a glorious abundance of food, and an amazing web of interconnections with loved ones around the world: all of these sustain me, and us, this Thanksgiving. And I'm thankful for my online life, the friendships which have formed through these matrices of pixels and these asynchronous conversations. I'm thankful for all of you who read this blog, whether you comment often or rarely, whether we tend to agree or disagree.

Thanks for being there, y'all. The last six years of Velveteen Rabbi have been a grand adventure, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of conversations we have in years to come. If you're celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope your day is full and sweet! And if you're not, I hope you have a fine Thursday, wherever you are.


This evening at sundown begins Eid ul-Adha -- I wish an eid mubarak, a blessed eid, to all of my Muslim readers & friends!


The seven-minute davven

I really like wearing tefillin. There's something about the act of removing them from their velvet pouch, unwinding them, rewinding them around my arm and head. There's something about how I think about the act, and what it means to me. There's something about how tactile it all is, the way the leather feels, its faint scent. And there's something about the way the process feels, independent of its intellectual associations. I just...like it. A lot. Trouble is, I don't get to do it very often. Tefillin are only worn for weekday morning davvening, and my schedule doesn't always permit me to pause for a whole morning service.

But at Ohalah earlier this month, one of my colleagues told me about something Reb Zalman came up with when he was working as teacher of environmentalism (and proto-Renewal) at Camp Ramah: the seven-minute davven. According to the story I heard, he went around to the different cabins and assigned them different periods of time for morning davvening. For one bunch (were they particularly rowdy or hyper, I wonder?) he pronounced seven minutes as the time they were obligated to spend with tefillin on.

"What can we do in seven minutes?" they asked. He told them to don the tefillin, say a blessing or two, say the full shema, and spend a little while talking with God -- and then take the tefillin back off. The basic structure of shacharit (morning prayer) involves four parts: first the psalms, songs, and blessings of p'sukei d'zimrah, then the section of the service that centers around the shema, then into the Amidah (the central standing prayer which many take as an opportunity for connection and conversation with God), and then a wrap-up. The seven-minute davven is a highly condensed version of that.

So this morning, that's what I did. I said a few of my favorite early blessings (modah ani for gratitude, asher yatzar for the body and elohai neshama for the soul, baruch she'amar for God Who speaks the world into being), I said the full shema, and then I stood by the tall sliding doors that lead to our deck (which looks out right now on a beautiful snowscape) and I spoke with God about my gratitude, about my hopes and needs for the day, and about some larger dreams and fears for the season to come. And then I took off my tallit and tefillin, made myself a cup of tea, and sat down to check my morning email.

I did miss parts of the service that I didn't say (mostly other morning blessings; for whatever reason, I get a lot out of the birchot ha-shachar, which is probably why they proved such fertile ground for poetry), but it felt good to do the grounding, calming, and connecting work of wearing my tefillin. And I came away with ideas for liturgical things I'd like to work on. Coincidence? Maybe. But I can't help thinking there's something about morning prayer that opens me up. One way or another, this is a good way to start my day.


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Thanksgiving

A happy American Thanksgiving to one and all! I love Thanksgiving because it's a chance to cook a lot (I was especially happy with the Sephardic pumpkin challah recipe I tried this year, which came from A Blessing of Bread); a chance to gather loved ones for feasting, togetherness, and conversation; and a chance to be mindful of the blessings that enrich our lives. It's a day to celebrate sustenance of every kind.

I have so many things to be thankful for. The amazing feast we assembled --

-- and the earth from which it arose, and the hands which brought it forth and cultivated it and shaped it;

The family and friends we gathered around our table --

-- especially those who came from afar (like my Texan niece, spending this year in New England and encountering some pretty wild winter weather already);

And most of all, I'm thankful for the ability to be thankful; to see in this life an infinity of blessings, even when, say, the cooking doesn't entirely go as planned. Thanksgiving is like a whole day for modah ani, and it always leaves me gladdened and satisfied.

This blog, and the community of conversations that's arisen around it, is something I'm thankful for, too. I think offering thanks completes a kind of cycle: when we offer thanks for the blessings in our lives, we keep those blessings flowing. May the coming year bring us an infinity of blessings, and the abundance of gratitude to match.


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