In my memory there resides a Jewish tradition I once heard about, which encourages finding 100 blessings every day. Admittedly it is a tall order when the demands of everyday life command you to be present in a challenging myriad of ways. Still, it is easy to find many simple things which move one to gratitude. This is a story of one such thing, which transformed one ordinary, rainy day in April into an extraordinary day, and lifted my family and I to appreciate the good deeds that are everywhere, in abundance. A story of a rotisserie chicken, roasted Brussel sprouts, rosemary potatoes and scratch-made cornbread.
On this day, the house air conditioning suddenly stopped with no respect for the 90-degree heat, the car’s “check engine” light came on, a bout of bronchitis appeared and an angry editor called and screamed, “Where is your story? ” At that point, I decided I needed a time-out and apologized to the family that I would not be doing my usual cooking and would pick up dinner at the nearby market. There went the brisket and the lentil soup, a necessary sacrifice for the growing tide of fatigue that now encompassed me. As I drove to the market, I murmured a short prayer of thanks that, despite the Toyota’s automotive fickleness, it had safely delivered me to my location without the proverbial bump in the road.
Once inside, and safe from the ominous thunderings of a gathering storm, I plucked a fat, juicy chicken from its heated resting place along with two attractive sides and warm cornbread that seemed to call out my name. I felt a momentary sensation of gratitude that the delicacies at the market had rescued me from a veritable storm of weighty problems. Instead of preparing the normal homemade meal, I could utilize that time to address the issues that had to be mediated. As the store clerk began processing my items, I reached into my purse to retrieve a credit card. I realized at that moment that my wallet was not there. In a paroxysm of anxiety, I blurted out to the kind young woman who was now bagging my groceries that I had left my money at home. As tears of embarrassment formed in my eyes, I apologized profusely and offered to return everything to its original market home.
I began to retrieve the items from the paper bags when a deep voice boomed out behind me, “Please, take everything home and enjoy the dinner. It’s all on the house tonight!” The store manager, seemingly magically, appeared. Although I tried to turn down this lovely offer, he would not hear my remonstrations. He picked up a dark chocolate bar near the counter and said, “Here! Take this, too!”
I heard many people cheering from the end of the line. Others were apparently happy for my good fortune and I felt the beauty of the old adage “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I thanked the store manager from the bottom of my swelling heart. His act of generosity had lifted all of us up at that moment. The mitzvah would not go unremarked on this Wednesday, as I drove home with a still-functioning car, a sky punctuated with dark interwoven clouds and a full heart (albeit a still-empty purse).
Another small miracle greeted me as I pulled into my driveway. My gleaming wet lawn, formerly overcome with weeds and a straggly mess, had just been mowed. My next-door neighbor was putting on the finishing touches, raking the cut grass and restoring order to the former wilderness. I jumped out of my car excitedly and asked him how much he wanted for his efforts, to which he replied, “Nothing at all. The lawn needed doing,” and waved me off summarily as he went into his home. A second scoop of good fortune had landed in my lap. At that moment I recalled the words from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.”
As I walked into my house, 75 years old with cracked walls, torn-up floors and water leaking from the ceiling, I remembered the words a non-Jewish friend, a Quaker, shared with me while we sat by a lake, barred owls flying overhead and white-tailed deer grazing nearby: “‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.’ That’s your guy, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel!” he said with some mirth as we both recognized the shared intimacy of the moment. I silently mouthed a prayer, content in that minute to simply have a roof, any roof, over our heads.
Life is full of these teaching moments. I will never be able to look at a rotisserie chicken, Brussel sprouts, rosemary potatoes, cornbread and a dark chocolate bar without recalling the kindness of a complete stranger, or at an unruly lawn without remembering the manicured embrace of a neighbor’s well-meaning. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks often wrote about the Jewish take on gratitude in prayer and practice, pointing out that the first prayer we are instructed to say when we wake up is “I give thanks” (Modeh Ani). In that same treatise, he referred to the word “Jew” coming from the exact root as the word “modeh.” The concept of gratitude is embedded, literally, in who we are as a people.
I haven’t reached my target of finding 100 blessings each day, but I am on the journey. I look out my front window and see a bevy of eastern blue jays who are busily eating the blueberries I left scattered for them. The dogwood tree in front of my house is beginning to show beautiful red berries on the tips of its branches, and a passing neighbor waves and yells out to me, “How are y’all doing? The yard looks great!” The “check engine” light has miraculously disappeared and my girlfriend from a tiny town in Mississippi is bringing over a Southern dish of red beans and rice that I know was made with a bounteous helping of love. Gratitude – practicing hakarat hatov – can derive from as humble a source as an on-the-house chicken from a local market; but inside that spiritual act is the grounding of kindness and grace that will help us tread the path of an incredibly complex and miraculous world.