Between a Rock and a Strawberry: This Grateful Life
Gratitude is a central theme of Thanksgiving. As we approach the Thanksgiving season, Rabbi Benjamin Shalva shares his insights on the Mussar (character) trait for gratitude: HaKarat HaTov (literally,“recognizing the good”). Benjamin Shalva is a rabbi, writer, yoga instructor, meditation teacher, and musician. He received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as Wisdom Leader at The Soul Center. You can meet Rabbi Ben monthly on Shabbat at Beth El, and at some of our Soul Center programs, like “The Spark,” a weekly deep dive into inspirational Jewish learning with Rabbi Dana Saroken and friends.
Gratitude may find you pausing, perhaps before a face, or a flower, or a ripe strawberry. You will feel the strength yet left in your limbs. This life - unfathomable - what a find!
You may rise resentful. We all do. Modeh ani, we read in the very first page of the prayer book. Modeh ani - I am thankful. “Am I?” you ask. Your body is a day older. Your sleep, fitful. You must rise - heavy, fleshy, dull. And it is only Monday. Dear God.
Modeh ani - I am thankful. Sometimes, only sometimes.
The rest of the time, we need a nudge. We need to be caught off guard by gratitude. We need to be tricked, as if by a Trojan Horse, as if by a ray of sun sneaking in past the shades. With the help of a good teacher; better, a good book; best, a story. A story of gratitude whispered to us when we need it most.
Jacob—good for nothing, nebbish, mama's boy, liar and thief, despised. Jacob fleeing from his twin brother, Esau, whom he has swindled. Jacob fleeing from his father, Isaac, to whom he has lied. There we have it, folks, and canonized, no less. The least likely story of gratitude. A protagonist lost, alone, ashamed, and afraid. Nowhere to lay his head but a rock. Nothing to do but dream, and not a simple dream, mind you. Angels climbing up and down a ladder? You could spin that either way. Here they come, but there they go. Blessed, Jacob, or cursed? He opens his eyes. The light is kind. The rock reliable. But memory is quick to claim him. He cannot escape what he has done. Blessed, Jacob, or cursed? He opens his mouth. He stakes his claim. “God was in this place,” Jacob said, “and I did not know.”
One more story. This one of Buddhist origins, but a favorite of Leo Tolstoy’s, too.
A man is walking down the road and a tiger appears. A hungry one. The man flees. He sees a cliff. Over the edge he goes, saved, at the very last, by a dangling vine. Above, the tiger paces. Below him waits a second tiger. Dangling by a vine between the two tigers, our hero hears exuberant squeaks, the patter of tiny feet. Two mice, one black and one white, have stumbled upon the same vine. They bare their greedy teeth. They peel the vine to its pulp. It is unfair, this life. A tiger above. A tiger below. Two mice on a vine. A story with a hard stop—like yours, like mine. But, here, one last act, a flourish worthy of old Leo: a strawberry within reach. A red, ripe strawberry, discoverable only from the man’s tragic angle. It might as well be the last strawberry on earth - maybe the mice even missed it. The man lets go, with one hand of course! The tigers’ eyes narrow. The mice nervously gnaw. The man plucks the strawberry. Pops it into his mouth. Smiles.
And there the story ends.
Only, give him a line, I say.
God was in this place, let him say, and I did not know.