Like a lot of Jewish kids, I had a bar mitzvah when I was 13. It wasn’t a particularly fancy affair (there was no dance party). But I studied my Torah portion and led services and gave a speech. It was a beautiful June day in Michigan, and friends and family came by and sat on lawn chairs outside.
Like many other Jewish kids celebrating this milestone, I’ll be honest, I was particularly interested in the gifts people gave me.
Among the gifts were some good books, a University of Michigan flag autographed by the head football and basketball coaches, and my first-ever subscription to the Sunday New York Times. (No surprise there; we have already established on an earlier episode that I was a nerdy kid.)
But that wasn’t the end of the bar mitzvah. What came next lasted for weeks, the bane of the existence of so many kids: writing thank you notes.
My parents had gotten me a box of fancy stationery, with “Josh” written in calligraphed blue letters on top. I had a list of all the people who had given me gifts or made contributions in my honor, and now I had to write handwritten notes to all of them.
Every day my parents would ask me, “Did you work on your thank-you notes?” It lasted for what seemed like an eternity — some nudging from my parents, me responding, “yeah, yeah, I’m writing them,” me somewhat begrudgingly jotting a few.
Eventually, weeks later, the last note was written — and, to my relief, my parents had nothing to noodge me about anymore.
As I’ve gotten older (and become the parent in this situation), I’ve come to appreciate the point of the exercise: Expressing gratitude is a profoundly important practice. Obviously, it’s impolite not to acknowledge a gift. We don’t want to appear ungrateful or selfish. But it goes much, much deeper than that.
Gratitude is fundamentally about humility, recognizing that we are not the center of the universe, but are, instead, bound up with the rest of the people and creatures and elements of life all around us.
When we express gratitude, we humble ourselves, acknowledging the limits of our own power, keeping our egos in check.
And as we know from developmental psychology — or simply from having lived through it — a lot of teenage life is about centering our lives on ourselves. Those thank you notes at age 13 were meant to be a countermeasure.
While as a kid writing those thank you notes was a chore, today, as an adult, I find expressing gratitude to be joyful. It feels great to say thank you — literally, I feel it in my body. I feel a bit of light come to my face, a little joy come to my heart. It’s hard not to smile when I say thank you.
As the leader of a nonprofit organization, I write a lot of thank you notes — and I love being able to do that. It’s not so much about the humility aspect as about acknowledging and experiencing the interconnection between us. Saying thank you allows me to feel that.
This week, the fifth of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, is traditionally devoted to the theme of Hod — a Hebrew word that’s the foundation of the word Hoda’ah, or gratitude.
The humility at the heart of gratitude works as a kind of balance for the strength of Netzach, which was last week’s theme. That same deep-rooted interconnection that gives us strength when we need it can and should humble us, too: We are not at the center of the universe but, amazingly, a part of it.
Our lives, our experiences, our relationships — we can, hopefully, view all of these as extraordinary gifts. And when we do, we can experience a dose of humility, which then leads us to express gratitude.
In the spirit of Hod, this week I’d like to invite you to do a gratitude practice. You may have done this sometime in your life, or perhaps you even have a practice like this already. If so, that’s great. Take the opportunity this week to deepen it — to experience it a little more fully. If not, now is a great time to start.
Here’s the practice. It’s in two parts. First, find a notebook or journal. Each day this week before bed, take a couple minutes to write down three things you’re grateful for. They could be things that happened to you that day, foods you ate, people you talked to, music you listened to, encounters you had.
They don’t have to be profound, but they shouldn’t be rote. They should be heartfelt — three things you’re really grateful for today. When you’re done, notice how you feel: maybe a little lighter, maybe a little smile on your face? Notice that sensation.
Here’s the second part: This week, see if you can make an extra effort to express gratitude to someone in your life. You probably say thank you throughout the day.
But see if there’s someone you want to go a little further out of your way for this week: a coworker or classmate who helped you on a time-sensitive project; a loved one who listened to you talk about something you needed to get off your chest; a teacher from childhood who taught you a lesson that’s stuck with you years later.
You might give them a call or write them an email. Or maybe you even want to send them an old-fashioned, handwritten thank-you note. (Your parents would be so proud!)
Again, when you do this, don’t just do it — but notice how you feel doing it. Does it feel easy, hard, pleasant, unpleasant, or something else?
There’s no right way to feel, but it’s important to be aware of what the experience of Hod, this humility that comes through expressing gratitude, awakens in you. Try it out, see how it goes, and let us know!
Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.