The Gift of a Blanket by Sarah Lehrfield (Intro by Lori)
Dear JWRP Sisters,
Living in suburban Washington offered those of us working at the JWRP headquarters a front-row seat for last week's presidential inauguration and protest marches — an up-close view of American democracy.
Many of us take for granted that we are free both to vote and to protest — rights that most human beings do not have. The founding fathers based these rights and the American judicial system on our Torah and Talmud. Next time you are in DC, take a look at what is chiseled into the walls of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
But U.S. politics right now is not viewed as a celebration of freedom and democracy, but rather a divisive force filled with conflict. Let's remember one of the founding values of the JWRP: Focus on what unites us, not what divides us.
As Jews, we may have voted differently, but we are one people with a common mission and destiny.
As one of the lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces told our women on Shabbat: "Two Jews, three opinions, one heart."
Good Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom,
The Gift of a Blanket
We all know that gratitude is important. From the days of our youth, we recall the voices of our parents in our heads, urging a response from us after receiving a gift: “What do you say to Grandma?” or “Tell Grandma, ‘thank you!’”
Time and time again, we were encouraged to write thank you notes for birthday presents. We quickly caught onto the drill. And we have all gotten really good at expressing our gratitude on autopilot. It’s become natural; it’s become easy. The bagger bags the groceries for you at the store, and you throw a quick “thanks” over your shoulder as you run out the door. The mailman brings a package up to your door, and you shout “thank you!” through the closed door that divides you, keeping you in the warmth and him trudging through snow. Your neighbor makes you dinner after you have surgery, and you text a quick “Thanks!!!!!! That was delicious! XOX.”
Most of us were taught well. We know what to do. We know what to say. The question Judaism asks of us is, “Do we know what to feel?” An even deeper question we might ask is: “Do we know how to feel?”
Rabbi Elazar Shach, dean of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, traveled a great distance from his home to attend the funeral of a relatively unknown individual. He was already frail and advanced in years, but he made the effort to be there for the whole funeral, despite the incredibly uncomfortable and harsh conditions outside. When asked by a student why he exerted himself, Rabbi Shach answered by telling him the following part of his life story:
When Rabbi Shach was 12 years old, he studied in a yeshiva with living conditions that were not optimal. The students slept on the hard, cold benches and the winter nights were intolerable. The cold was bone-chilling. The only source of warmth was the hot stove, though many refugees who joined the students at night took the best sleeping places. So, the young Rabbi Shach slept far from the only source of heat with no bedding.
One night, a woman saw him shivering on a bench, took pity on him and brought him an old blanket from her house. From then on, Rabbi Shach was able to sleep, wrapped up in the blanket. He continued studying and became one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. Because of a blanket.
Rabbi Shach concluded by sincerely expressing his gratitude to this woman, whose gift gave him his future. When she died, he felt that he needed to re-experience the miserable conditions of his past, remaining outside throughout the entire funeral and procession so that he could relive the feelings of discomfort and misery he endured as a student. Only then would he truly feel the gratitude he owed this Jewish woman for the gift of her blanket. It was not enough for him to express his gratitude when he received the blanket or to show his appreciation by attending the funeral; he needed to remind himself of the lack he felt back then to truly feel the gain.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’era, G-d commands Moses to bring the plagues onto Pharaoh and the Egyptians as punishment for not letting the Jewish people leave slavery and the land of Egypt. Moses was to bring the first plague, blood, into fruition by striking the waters of the Nile. Though it was the responsibility of the leader to carry out the plagues, in an interesting turn of events, G-d tells Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt.'” This pattern is repeated during the next two plagues, frogs and lice. Why does G-d specify that Aaron should initiate the plagues that required striking both the water and the sand? Why not Moses?
Rashi, the classic commentator on the Torah, gives an answer to this question that lends insight to the varied and layered dimensions of Hakarat HaTov (recognizing the good, i.e. gratitude). As both the river and the sand provided refuge for Moses during his greatest times of need, it was inappropriate for him to strike them and show a lack of appreciation for how they helped him. Despite the fact that both water and sand are inanimate objects, it was necessary for the appreciator, Moses, to acknowledge his gratitude. It’s irrelevant who or what the giver – the recipient of the gratitude – is.
The Torah teaches us a crucial lesson on gratitude: recognizing the good and being thankful is not for the benefit of the person who receives the gratitude but for the benefit of the person who gives it. And so, when we express our thanks, it is crucial that we do more than just pay lip service. Like Rabbi Shach, we have to connect to our feelings and emotions. The very essence of gratitude lies in the heart, not in our behavior. It is something we must feel, not something we just say.
So the next time someone does something good to you or you receive a blessing from G-d, take one second to notice how you feel internally. Or when your child is given a gift for his/her birthday, instead of pushing them to say “thank you,” quietly pull them aside and ask them how they feel in that moment. Are they happy, excited, surprised, appreciative? Then, let them take the next step and express it in their own form of gratitude.
There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t been given gifts, if only the gifts of life and hope. Let us work to perceive the good from G-d and those around us in our moment-to-moment existence. Let us not only open our eyes but more importantly, our hearts to the blessings of life and feel the goodness and graciousness bestowed upon us each day.
Sarah Lehrfield is a JWRP City Leader and the daughter of a City Leader. She is passionate about running, reading classics, being a listening ear for others and bringing the wisdom and relevancy of Judaism to all Jews. She teaches classes and runs women's programming for the Jewish Outreach Initiative (JOI). She lives in the burbs of Denver, Colorado with her husband, three kids and plenty of snow gear.