The Jewish language of gratitude

The Jewish language of gratitude

Rabbi Shai Held talks about the gifts that flow through us for B’nai Abraham at Selichot

Rabbi Shai Held
Rabbi Shai Held

One of Rabbi Dr. Shai Held’s many gifts is his ability to find profundity in apparently simple ideas — profundity that was there all along, in ideas that genuinely are simple with their directness and clarity.

That gift allows him to tease out complexity and nuance without resorting to pomposity. It’s a neat and useful skill.

On Saturday night, Rabbi Held will use that gift at Selichot for Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston as he discusses “The Gifts of God Flow Through You: On Grace, Gratitude, and Generosity in Judaism” on Zoom. (There also will be a Zoom display at the synagogue for masked, vaxxed participants with proof of vaccination, and then the service will be live and livestreamed. See below.)

“It’s about what the Jewish theory of sophisticated gratitude looks like,” Rabbi Held, the president, dean and chair of Jewish thought at the Hadar Institute, the new-ish, traditional egalitarian school and shul in Manhattan, said.

“It’s about the way in which being grateful requires that you share it and pass it along. It’s about the way we cannot hoard what we have.

“It’s based in part on images in kabbalah,” Rabbi Held continued. “God’s chesed” — God’s grace and goodness — “flow through the world, and you do not want to be a dam. You want the gifts of God to flow through you.

“The idea is very simple, but it is very profound. You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand it or to talk about it. I’ve been teaching about it for a long time, and I’ve learned that reactions to it are striking and moving.”

He plans to talk about “the ways in which grace, gratitude, and generosity are all bound up with each other,” he said. “We receive a lot of things that we couldn’t possibly have earned. We’re grateful for them, and part of that gratitude is passing them on.” The idea that we haven’t earned much of what have been given is old; “a passage in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed talks about how spiritual life begins with the awareness that none of us did anything to earn the gift of life, and we have to cultivate gratitude for it.”

Then as now, “this way of thinking about the world is radically countercultural,” he said; right now, “in our culture of acquisition, to be focused on giving is countercultural in the deepest sense.”

While the subject of gratitude is evergreen, it’s particularly important right now, Rabbi Held said. “It is pressing right now in our culture.” That’s because it’s closely related “to the idea of what it means to have elemental human solidarity. To feel that we are all responsible for one another.”

And yes, that does bring up mask and vaccine wars.

Last year, Rabbi Held — whose undergraduate degree and doctorate in religion are from Harvard, and whose rabbinic education and ordination are from the Jewish Theological Seminary — wrote a piece in the Atlantic called “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly.” It’s about the belief, as expressed by Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, at the beginning of the pandemic, and as overheard by friends of Rabbi Held’s on a New York street at around the same time, that if covid were to kill off only the old, then, basically, so what? They’d had their chance at life, and now it’s time for them to shuffle off that mortal coil, because their lease on it had expired.

“What do they mean that it’s only old people?” Rabbi Held said. “Who raised you?” How can anyone dismiss someone else’s illness and death, as long as it’s the illness and death of someone from another generation, by saying “it’s only old people?”

“There is some sense in which human solidarity should be so fundamental that to lack it in that way is so alarming that I can’t even begin to describe it.

“Liberty without an attendant sense of responsibility is worthless, even toxic. I think that we as a culture have radically overplayed liberty and underplayed responsibility. That is tragic.

“The thing that the pandemic has done is that it has shown us the extent to which we are lacking what psychologists call pro-social emotions. We’re lacking generosity, mutual responsibility, and empathy. We are a really troubled society right now.”

These issues can be discussed through a number of different lenses; his are specifically Jewish. The ideas might be elegantly simple, but the texts he will use are complicated and sophisticated.

When he talks about the idea of gratitude, Rabbi Held said, he “will not do it in the language of self-help.” Instead, “we will look at it using the language from the deep wellsprings of tradition. We won’t look at the usual sources. We will look at the laws of sacrifice, at Maimonides, at the 20th-century Mussar movement. We will be going to some deep places.”

In his Atlantic essay, Rabbi Held wrote about how dismissing the deaths of elderly people began by dehumanizing them. “ ‘The elderly’ are bunched together as a faceless mass, all of them considered culprits and thus effectively deserving of the suffering the pandemic will inflict on them. Lost entirely is the fact that the elderly are individual human beings…”

He contrasts that idea with the biblical commandment to honor your father and mother. The word “honor” comes from a root that means “weight.” “At the deepest level, then, the biblical command is thus to treat the elderly as weighty,” he wrote. We’re not allowed to curse them; the word “curse” comes from a root that means “light.” So, we are not allowed to treat old people lightly, “as if they are inconsequential,” he wrote.

“Just because an idea sounds easy, that doesn’t mean that it is easy,” Rabbi Held said. “Some ideas are universal, but still it’s important to understand them in your own particular language.

“There is a specifically Jewish way to talk about gratitude, and I offer people that language.”

Who: Rabbi Dr. Shai Held

What: Will speak for Temple B’nai Abraham’s Selichot program

When: On Saturday, August 28, at 9 p.m.; Selichot services will begin at 10:15

Where: On Zoom and in person, with mask and proof of vaccination, at B’nai Abraham, 300 E Northfield Rd, Livingston

To get the link: Call (973) 994-2290 or email

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