I don’t know about you, but it feels like we have finally turned a corner in the pandemic that we have all been living through the past two and half years. The start of this school year feels different, it feels more typical, and I have felt a tremendous amount of excitement and energy as we approached the first day of the academic year.
I want to reflect today, the first day of school, on the concept and character trait of gratitude and connect it to our school-wide theme, Thriving. Despite all of the challenges, all of the canceled events, all of the disappointments during these pandemic years, the pervading feeling I had and want to cultivate this school year is one of gratitude. Despite everything that has happened I think we have come to realize that we are all fortunate and we all have so many wonderful blessings in our lives.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which literally means “recognizing the good.” The good you see is already there, it is present in all of our lives despite the challenges we may face. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours. Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness, writes that “[w]hen you open yourself to experience the trait of gratitude, you will discover with clarity and accuracy how much good there is in your life” and in the world.
In his classic medieval work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda (1050-1120) teaches that we all tend to suffer a kind of blindness that keeps us from seeing and appreciating everything we have.
First, he tells us that we don't feel appreciation because we are too absorbed in the world. We are constantly looking for more and so we tend to not have gratitude. Second, we are so used to all the blessings we have that we don’t really see them. And last, we are so focused on the challenges and the things that may not be as we would like, that we forget all the many blessings.
Ibn Pakuda teaches us that with practice, we can cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude. All we have to do is recognize all of the wonderful gifts and blessings we have and focus on those, focus on the positive. Contemporary research in psychology indicates the very same thing, when we are positive and optimistic, we begin to feel more positive and optimistic.
So, this year, as we move forward from all the challenges we have faced, let’s each make it our intention to be grateful for everything we have, to recognize our blessings, and to embrace a spirit of gratitude.
The above is based on Rabbi Malkus’ opening remarks to students in the middle school and high school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School on August 30, 2022.