The Specificity of Gratitude

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September 3, 2012
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SUSAN P. FENDRICK

In memory of Alan Fendrick z”l

I confess that I first experienced the request to write about gratitude and the book of Jonah as the “worst petichta homework assignment ever.” (Rabbinic insider baseball: A petichta is a form in classical rabbinic midrash in which the darshan — the midrashic composer — demonstrates virtuosity by starting with a verse that at first seems to have nothing to do with the text at hand, and then slowly and artfully weaving her way back.)

It was the circumstance of becoming a mourner that made it possible for me to see Jonah not just as a trepidatious, narcissistic whiner, but as a teacher on the path of gratitude.

Jonah’s initial avoidance of his assignment to proclaim God’s word to Nineveh does at least demonstrate his chops as the reluctant prophet. And he’s not entirely without concern for others. When he realizes that hiding on the boat from Jaffa is endangering its other passengers, he tries (against self-interest) to get them to throw him off the boat. Though they row and pray, neither of those acts helps the situation, and eventually they do toss him overboard, at which point he is swallowed up by a big fish. Jonah spends three days and nights inside the fish and then he is vomited up onto dry land. God tells him a second time to go to Nineveh, and this time (presumably, Jonah sees where this is all going and decides to take the short route to prophecy) Jonah tells the Ninevites to repent their evil ways, and — miracle of miracles — it works! They change their behavior and avoid divine punishment, which makes this prophet…so unhappy he wants to die? Is Jonah by this point so accustomed to futility and divine punishment that he finds success and mercy a source of fear?

God lets Jonah stew in his private misery. He gives him a gourd to temporarily shade him from the sun, but then sends a worm to eat it and wind and sun to vex him. When Jonah laments the loss of his shade, God — here somewhat of a bumbling and pedantic educator — tells him: You get all worked up about your beloved gourd, but couldn’t find a way to care about Nineveh, with all its human inhabitants and (“Best Biblical Book Ending Ever”) “also much cattle”?

It would seem that there is absolutely nothing to recommend Jonah as a spiritual teacher — except that in the middle of it all, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale, he prays. Petitionary prayer, we’d expect at this point: “Help me. Save me. Spare me.” But no, for Jonah, having been thrown into the turbulent and stormy waters, suddenly finds shelter in this spacious, kinetic tent — shelter that is both life-saving and soul-saving.
And his prayer is not bakasha, petition, but hoda’ah, thanksgiving:

I was once submerged in danger and despair, in the valley of the shadow of death, and now I am in the belly of God’s creation, bringing me safety and hope. My soul was terrified, but somehow I had faith that I would feel God’s presence again — and I do, in this oddest of holy places, this portable living sanctuary. For all this, I do — and I will — give thanks.

Jonah’s earlier and later deferrals, resignations, and complaints are mostly perfunctory, but his expressions of gratitude in the middle of it all are lush and generous.

A brakha, or blessing, formula — “Blessed are You…” followed by an expression of thanks for a mitzvah, experience, or gift of nature — is a Jewish liturgical nugget of gratitude. There are two countervailing trends in our tradition regarding the multiplication of blessings. On one hand (as my friend and teacher Rabbi Benjie Samuels recently taught at the minyan I attended during the sheloshim — the 30 days of mourning — for my brother), ayn marbin b’kadishin — we don’t want to be too extravagant with the liturgical use of God’s name. On the other hand, we are supposed to make at least 100 blessings a day. With the exception of ha-motzi, an all-inclusive brakha that we are obligated to use when bread is part of a meal, we are instructed to make our blessings over food as particular as possible (even if that requires two or three blessings at one sitting). We learn that we should avoid simply relying on the generic she’ha-kol (a blessing that would “count” for any and all foods) and instead recite blessings that apply to specific items, such as fruits of the earth, tree, and vine, and varieties of baked goods and other grain items.

In the words of the kaddish, God is l’ayla min kol birchata v’shirata, tushb’chata v’nechamata — beyond all words of blessing and song, praise and consolation. And yet, while God’s gifts and essence surely cannot be adequately captured by human language, we can find our way to an awareness and expression of the specificity of what we have received — even if it is not all we need. In the darkness, we can find a sense of safety. In need, we often find ourselves being fed and nurtured. In grief, we may also find comfort. Not always, but sometimes; hopefully, often enough.

To Reb Nachman, the world seemed to be “a very narrow bridge.” To me, the world of human life is more of a constant wandering through light and darkness, through expansiveness and constriction, among land and sea and the belly of the whale — where it is both scary and safe, and where most of the time we need to be sad and afraid and grateful all at once. For us, as for Jonah, there is fear even in possibility and success, and there is blessing even in the chaos and the darkness.

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Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick (suefendrick.com) is an editor, writer, and spiritual director. She lives in Newton, Mass. with her husband and children, and tries to name her blessings even in the darkness.

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