“Praise God, even if God takes your life”

Thank you to RS Board member David Mandell, ScD, for offering these words on the post-election world, gratitude, and a congregational learning opportunity.

“Praise God, even if God takes your life”

I am heartbroken by the results of the presidential election. I alternate between deep mourning and rage. Yesterday morning I expressed my anguish to a colleague from Turkey. She said that she too is disappointed but was not experiencing the same depths of despair that I was. She pointed out that living in the United States is still preferable to the violence and unrest in Turkey. A Russian man told me, “so your party lost? At least you have two parties. And you’re not thrown in jail for not being a member.” Another friend listened in on a phone call with President Obama, who gave us permission to mope for a week, and then have to get back to work. We’ve made a huge difference to the country and if 20% of it gets rolled back, 80% is still left.

In these three moments I felt hope. And driving that hope was gratitude. Gratitude for living in a country with a strong system of laws that curb the worst excesses of our politicians. Gratitude that my family is not subject to constant threats of violence and poverty, even as I am keenly aware that many are. Gratitude that there is work to be done to make the world a better place and that I can do it.

Last Sunday Rabbi Sarrah Lev, chair of the Department of Rabbinic civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, taught at Rodeph Shalom using Jewish texts about gratitude. Rabbi Lev is a phenomenal teacher who wears her considerably erudition lightly. She engaged us in close reading of Jewish texts to learn how Jewish conceptions of gratitude changed from the Torah to the Talmud.  She spoke of how the Talmudic rabbis thought and how they read Torah, Prophets and Psalms. One very striking and relevant text for me was from the Mishnah. It states that one is required to bless for evil in the same way as for good, “even if God takes your life.“ How powerful to think that even in the worst of times in the face of the worst of crimes, we are called upon to express gratitude by praising God. What does that mean for us today as we face perhaps the single biggest challenge to human rights and dignity that we have faced in the last 50 years? Can gratitude become a tool of change for us? That which keeps us hopeful in difficult times?

Rabbi Lev will be back next Sunday at 10:15 to continue her teaching. Please join me in learning from her as we continue this discussion.