Cultivating gratitude for the good which is not yet
The great sage Rabban Gamaliel once taught that in the world to come trees will bear new fruit every day – an amazing statement of hope about an unknown future (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Shabbat 30b). One of Gamaliel's students scoffed, quoting Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).” Gamliel replied, “Come, and I will show you an example in this world.” He showed his students a caper bush. During its lengthy flowering season, the caper produces a new flower daily. Looking at the same bush as everyone else, Gamliel sees hints of eternity.
Gamliel saw divinity in the mundane, the potential for good that goes beyond observation or measurement. Rav Mike Feuer of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies calls this “seeing the good that is not yet.” The ability to “see the good that is not yet” can be cultivated. How? By practicing gratitude.
The daily practice of gratitude can open our eyes so wide that we can see the potential for good around us, even when it has yet to be. This ability can be developed with three gratitude practices that I call “seeing the good,” “speaking the good,” and “praying the good.”
Seeing the good. Seeing the good is a foundational practice. We look for the gifts around us, acknowledge them, and express gratitude for them, large or small. The daily practice of writing a gratitude list cultivates the ability to see the good.
What one writes doesn’t need to be profound. It doesn’t have to be new or different each day, just real and alive in the moment. Sometimes I’ll list the people I love by name, at times adding myself to the list. Some days – when gratitude seems more distant – the best I can do is be grateful for hot water, coffee, and my comforter. Other days my list is sweeping and large. I’m grateful for Torah, mitzvot, Talmud, yoga, poetry, and the siddur. Still, the small examples of gratitude are enough.
Seeing the good is about bringing to mind that which we might take for granted, things that are so small as to go unnoticed, or so large that they seem foundational and become unseen. By taking a few minutes to think about the gifts around us, our blessings become obvious.
Speaking the good. The second practice of gratitude is speaking the good – sharing gratitude with others. This is the practice of taking gratitude into the world, dropping gratitude like seeds that will sprout more gratitude.
It’s an art to share your blessings in a way that invites others to name their own blessings. Done with grace and sensitivity, speaking gratitude opens channels between us through which love and healing can flow. We encourage each other to see blessings and to enliven them with stories and songs, with laughter and with tears. The trick is gentleness and humility, so that speaking gratitude doesn’t sound like a brag or one-upmanship.
According to Michal Fox Smart of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, “When we speak gratitude it is not only strengthened, but it becomes physically real. Speech is an act of creation. Gratitude is then not just a thought or feeling, but an action, a wave of energy that enters our bodies as we hear our own voice.”
One doorway into speaking the good is the familiar question “How are you?” At times, when asked, I’ll answer by saying, “I’m feeling grateful today.” Occasionally that unfamiliar comment goes unnoticed, but often it becomes the entrance to a lively and lovely conversation.
When we speak the good, we invite others to see the good in their own lives while making our own sense of gratitude more real and ingrained through the simple act of repetition. See the good; write it down. Speak the good; engrave it in your consciousness and in your heart. Gratitude is magnified.
Praying the good. The third practice of gratitude is praying the good, telling God that we see the gifts around us. Yes, God already knows what is good in the world, but knowing that God knows that I know further increases my sense of gratitude.
The Sages knew the importance of praying gratitude. It’s built into our liturgy and berachot, the daily blessings. We express gratitude for the gifts that flow from God into the world. We aren’t limited to the prepared text. About gratitude, both liturgy and practice invite us to use our own words. God invites us to see the good and to speak it, to others and to Godself.
Seeing the good that is not yet is a practice built into our festival calendar. One example: Tu Bi’Shevat, Rosh HaShanah La'Ilanot, the New Year of the Trees. “This is a celebration of what exists in potential,” says Fox Smart. “We celebrate spring when it’s the turning point of mid-winter, when the sap is first beginning to rise imperceptibly within the trees. It’s a day of gratitude for the good which is not yet.”
Thought of in this way, the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holidays – focused repentance and return, are an expression of faith that we can each become the expression of our highest and best selves, the good in each of us that is not yet.
At the Passover seder, by expressing gratitude for the redemption we’ve already experienced, we dream of the redemption that is not yet. On Sukkot, when we build and dwell in a Sukkah, we practice living temporarily in the peace and loving shelter about which we dream.
Here’s the secret power of gratitude: the power of seeing, speaking, and praying the good. We learn to see not only with our eyes, but with our souls. With practice, you’ll see not only the good that’s already in the world, but you’ll also begin to see the good that is not yet, the good that may come into being, and the goodness that is built into creation.
Alden Solovy spreads joy and excitement for prayer. An American-Israeli liturgist, poet, author, and educator, Alden is the Liturgist-in-Residence for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem. His teaching spans from rabbinical schools and Limmud conferences in Israel, the U.S., and the UK, to synagogues throughout North America. He’s the author of five solo volumes, including a trilogy of poetic prayer from CCAR Press: This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. Alden’s work is anthologized in 16 volumes from Jewish, Christian, and Catholic publishers. He also writes for Ritualwell, RavBlog, and the Times of Israel. He’s a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism and is founder of ManKind Project Israel. Find his work at ToBendLight.com. Alden made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2012 and can be reached at email@example.com.