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See More, Better and Farther with the Chanukah Candles

on Tuesday, December 12 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

“Don’t forget where you came from.”  It is often said at graduations, it’s the title of a country music song, and many successful people include it on their list of the most important things to remember.

And yet, when Yosef HaTzadik ascends to great heights and power in Egypt, he marries, has his first son and seems to violate this critical principle.  He names his oldest son Menashe – “ki nashani Elokim es kol amali v’eis kol beis avi, God has made me forget all my hardship and my father’s entire household.”

What? Yosef HaTzadik, this righteous individual who, when the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him he triumphed only because he drew strength from the image of his father, is now saying he has forgotten them all?  And is grateful for it?  How is it possible to be so callous, so crass, so insensitive?  Was it a coping mechanism?  Was he simply hardened to his new reality and bitter?  How is it possible that Yosef, who was so close with his father – who grew up as his ben zekunim – could possibly rise to greatness and not only forget about his family but actually name his oldest son “I have forgotten my whole family?”

There are a number of suggestions offered.  First of all, it seems to me that if you name your kid “I have forgotten my family” it means one thing – you actually haven’t forgotten your family and don’t want to.  Furthermore, Rav Yitzchak Arama, author of the Sefer Akeida, suggests that Yosef doesn’t mean to say I have literally forgotten them.  What he meant was I have selective memory and have chosen to only look back on my childhood with nostalgia and good will.  I have forgotten the animosity, conflict, and enmity and remember only the good times.

Indebted to the Misfortunes as Opportunities

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch has an altogether different approach.  He says the suggestion that Yosef could forget his family is preposterous.  “Nashani” in this context doesn’t mean to forget.  Rather says Rav Hirsch, it means what noshe means when it comes to Shemita, to be a creditor.

In other words, Yosef celebrates the birth of his son as he enjoys a position of great prominence in the strongest empire in the world.  As he reflects back on what brought him there he says, ki nashani Elokim es kol amali v’eis kol beis avi, God has made my misfortunes and my family into creditors.  What had seemed until now to be terrible misfortune indeed brought me to this most joyous moment, to the point that I am now deeply indebted to my perceived misfortunes and my family who brought them on.

Yosef had suffered a string of challenges and hardships.  He had not only survived but astonishingly now found himself thriving.  He could have looked back on the events of his life that led him there in one of two ways.  He could have said, woe is me, I can’t believe I was thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, falsely accused, forgotten in prison, and abandoned for all these years by my family.  He could have been bitter, hurt, and resentful and concluded that his success and achievements were despite his hardships.  Instead, Yosef made the choice to look back at his life and say, I don’t fully understand why I had to endure what I did or why those bad things had to happen to me, but look at me now and the blessings I am privileged to enjoy.

We don’t all merit to ascend to power and wealth the way Yosef did.  For many, hardship continues and endures and the light at the end of the tunnel seems as distant as ever.  And yet, I believe the Torah’s message is that no matter the circumstance, if we approach life with humility and gratitude we can identify a blessing in our circumstance, something good that has come out and feel indebted for the positive we enjoy.

See More With One Eye Than With Two

In a great article, Sight to Behold, L. Jon Wertheim tells the story of Luis Salazar.  A longtime major-league infielder and minor-league coach Salazar had been out of baseball for a year, happily sitting at home in Boca Raton. But in August 2010 he got the itch to return so, with the blessing of Graciela, his wife of 33 years, Salazar sent out his résumé. The Atlanta Braves offered him a job managing their Class-A Carolina League team, the Lynchburg Hillcats.

Salazar joined the Braves for their spring training games in 2011 and was coaching third base one March afternoon. As Wetheim tell it:

Salazar was 55, a former third baseman whose reaction times were not what they once were. No matter. He had no chance. Not with slugger Brian McCann hitting from maybe 60 feet away and the foul ball traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. The projectile smacked Salazar in his left eye, making a hideous sound and knocking him backward down the dugout steps. He fractured his right arm in the fall, but that was the least of it. He was unconscious, concussed, and blood poured from his nose, mouth and eye, puddling around his head as he lay face down. As a helicopter transported Salazar to an Orlando trauma center, the players struggled to keep it together, not least McCann, who left the game.

Salazar regained consciousness in the hospital that night. He says he saw a white light—”very bright, so bright”—and fell back asleep. He woke up the next day after a surgery, the first of three. “What happened?” he asked his wife. She told him. He nodded. He went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Then the gravity set in. “It’s scary when you don’t recognize yourself,” he said. “That’s when I knew how bad it was.”

Doctors first told him the good news. He was alive. And, blessedly, he’d suffered no brain injury. Then, a few days later, the bad news: his left eye was so damaged it would need to be removed.

Six days after he was hit, Salazar’s left eye was surgically removed, his socket suddenly resembling a garage without a car. He conceded, that was “a tough day,” but he was more focused on thanking God that he had come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. The doctor told him that losing the eye meant only that he couldn’t be a fighter pilot. Otherwise there would be no restrictions. He put a bandage over the eye—beating others to it by making the obligatory Pittsburgh Pirates joke—and went about his business.

When Salazar was finally released from the hospital, he drove the three hours from Orlando to Boca Raton. “I needed to do that for myself,” he said. On April 15 he made his managerial debut in Lynchburg. By this point, his story had generated some media attention—particularly among Braves fans—and a capacity crowd turned out to welcome the new manager. Graciela was in the stands as well. “Just putting on the uniform, going to home plate and handing the lineup card to the umpire,” he said. “That was the best moment of my baseball career.”

During his season managing in Lynchburg, Salazar often spent the duration bus trips returning voicemails from friends. “In a way, I see more now than I did with two eyes,” he said. “I see friends, teammates I haven’t spoken to in 25 years. I notice more around the ballpark. It’s maybe crazy to say, but in some ways it’s been a blessing.”

Chanukah Candles Illuminate What Is Already All Around Us

We take as a given that the reason we light the Chanukah candles is to see the flames.  We tend to assume that the pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the miracle, is achieved by lighting oil and commemorating a miracle from many years ago.  But perhaps we are missing the point.  Maybe the real purpose is not to see the flame itself but to allow the flame to illuminate the darkness and reveal what is all around us.  Perhaps publicizing the miracle is not accomplished through the candle, but rather when we take a moment to consider the trials and tribulations we have been through and yet allow the light to illuminate for us how fortunate and blessed we are nonetheless. The Jewish people’s existence after all these years and systematic attempts to eliminate us… we are the miracles.  Each one of us has struggled, be it with illness, financial hardship, etc. and yet we are here, we are positive and we are grateful.  That is the miracle.

The mitzvah is ner ish ubeiso, and perhaps we can suggest homiletically, the mitzvah is to see the candle but more importantly to see ish, to see ourselves and how we are here, and to see beiso, how fortunate we are to have a spouse, children, a home.

Louis Salazar says he sees more with one eye than he ever saw with two.  When we light that menorah, like Yosef we must see beyond what our eyes can perceive and see and appreciate the blessings and the miracles that surround us all along.

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Invisible or Inimitable? Raising Healthy and Happy Children

on Thursday, December 7 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Recently, President Trump formally declared the nationwide opioid drug problem a public health emergency.  Substance abuse is a growing epidemic that doesn’t discriminate based on religion, economic class, gender, or ethnicity.  As we have come to learn all too well, the frum community is not immune, either.

Experts will all tell you that drug and alcohol addiction are not about the substance, but rather, about what pain the users are trying to escape, what hole in their hearts they are trying to fill, or what aspect of their lives they desperately want to be numb to.  A young man I know recently wrote me a letter describing his experience with drugs and how he was using them to deny and escape his actual problem, the depression that was suffocating him.  “For months during that year I would go to sleep every night hoping and praying I simply wouldn’t wake up the next morning, and every morning I would open my eyes and feel the crushing disappointment of having to endure another day. Modeh Ani seemed to be mocking me.”

In the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of teens in America struggling with depression surged to a shocking 33 percent. Teen suicide attempts increased by 23 percent.  While these numbers are dramatically lower in the Jewish community, they are still way too high and only growing.  A recent paper published in Clinical Psychological Science correlates the increased mental health issues among young people with the rise of smart phones and use of social media. It turns out that being hyper-connected generates feelings of loneliness and insignificance.

In recent, separate conversations with several young people struggling with depression, similar themes and language emerged.  They all shared feeling invisible, inconsequential, that they don’t know why they are here and that the world would be no different if they were gone.  While such thoughts are obviously unhealthy and demand attention, intense therapy, and often medication,  they also provide an insight into both what we can do to identify the population most at risk, to show support for those currently suffering, and to help those who have struggled from relapsing.

Last year, on a tour of the Library of Congress, I commented to our guide that a book we were looking at was rare.  She stopped me and said, “That book is not rare, it is unique, one of a kind.” That comment immediately got me thinking, not so much about the book, but about all of us.  So many people are struggling to find their place in the world, their value or worth.  Too many people feel irrelevant or insignificant.  We all need to know, believe and most importantly feel, that not only are we not just rare, we are one of a kind, and irreplaceable.  We each have a unique mission and distinctive purpose in this world that cannot be accomplished or achieved by anyone else.  We are each a tzelem Elokim, a distinct and special expression of the Ribbono Shel Olam in this world.  We need to know and truly believe it about ourselves, and we need to instill that message in those around us.

Not only is Modeh Ani not mocking us, it is the formula to start each and every day with a jolt of chizuk.  We end Modeh Ani with the words, rabba emunasecha, Hashem, your faith in us is great.  This phrase appears strange: we are the ones who are supposed to have faith in Hashem, why are we referencing His faith in us?  The Ribono Shel Olam prescribed these words so that we begin each day with the recognition that if we woke up this morning, if our “contract” has been renewed another day, that means Hashem continues to have faith in us, that we have a role to play in His world and that we have a personal mission to achieve.

Communicating each person’s individual worth and value must be a fundamental goal of education and is a core responsibility of parents and mechanchim.  The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in his introduction to Chovas HaTalmidim, defines this as the essence of chinuch, education.  Based on a Rashi (Bereishis 14:14), he writes:

Chinuch is the initiation of a person or object into the trade or art for which it is destined, as in the education of a youth, the dedication of the altar or inauguration of a house.  The term chinuch is appropriate when referring to an innate talent that a person has for a certain art, or when describing the preparation of a house or object for use.  It is a special word with specific definition, and it is used to describe the realization of latent potential inherent in a person or object. If we fail to actualize that potential, it will remain concealed forever.  Our mission is to be mechanech, to educate the person so that he will become an accomplished craftsman; to prepare the house so that each room fulfills its intended purpose; or to prepare the instrument so that it performs the function for which it was designed.

The great artist Michelangelo put it well when he described his process of sculpting: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and in action.  I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

According to the Piaseczno Rebbe, the mission of each teacher and every parent is to stand before the child, see the potential in him and chip away until that potential and uniqueness is fully realized and visible to all, most of all the child himself.  Instilling a sense of worth and value within a child begins with knowing the child, and that takes time and an emotional investment.

Several years ago, an educator from Israel met with me to share his vision for creating a yeshiva that integrated a love of music with learning Torah.  He described that some connect to Hashem through music and that passion could be leveraged to grow in Torah.  His yeshiva would include time to practice and play music as a means of religious expression and would study Torah texts that focus on music.  He went around the United States meeting with educators about the idea and what he found disappointed him terribly.

When he asked them if they had students in their shiur or class who love music, he got blank stares and responses like, “I don’t know, possibly.”  For those passionate about the instrument they play or the music they listen to, it is a big part of their life and their individuality.  The Israeli educator asked me indignantly, how could people possibly be effective rebbeim or teachers and not even know such a basic fact about their students?

David Blazar, an assistant professor of education policy and economics at the University of Maryland, recently completed a study looking at the correlation between teachers’ focus on students’ confidence and well-being and their test grades.  “Many, including myself, see students’ social and emotional development as a central goal of teachers’ and students’ work,” he wrote. “Yet, accountability systems that focus predominately or exclusively on student achievement send a message that the skills captured on these tests are the ones that policymakers want students to have when they leave school.”

Blazar concluded that we need to broaden what it means to be a successful student.  Schools should measure teachers not only by their effectiveness at elevating students’ grades, but by imbuing them with confidence, happiness, and well-being.

What is true in school or yeshiva is even more true at home.  We must not communicate that our children’s worth or value is exclusively determined by their grades or how many blatt gemara they know.  They need to know they matter, they make a difference and they have a mission to achieve.  When children come home, don’t ask them how they did on their test or bechina.  Ask instead, “Did you do something nice for someone else; did you make a difference in someone else’s life today?  Did you matter?”

The young man who wrote me the letter (and gave permission to share) about his drug abuse described the multiple times he thought about taking his own life while away in yeshiva. When he finally confided in his father how he felt, he was met not with judgment or rejection, but with love and support.  He was diagnosed with clinical depression and after beginning a regimen of medicine and therapy, he concluded the letter by saying, “I really never felt better. I write this now as I start a new chapter of my life, one of honesty not of farces. Of truth not lies. Of sobriety, not drug dependence. I write this free of the burden of pretending to be something I’m not.”

Since confronting these issues and understanding them a little better, not only have I tried to act more compassionately and empathically to those in crisis, but it has changed the way I relate to everyone. The fact that these maladies are invisible means we must never assume we know everything going on in someone’s life or what motivates his or her behavior.  Ian Maclaren, the 19th C. Scottish author once said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  Cut others slack; give people the benefit of the doubt.

When someone you know is acting differently or unusual, don’t judge them or jump to assumptions about them.  Pirkei Avos (2:4) quotes Hillel who said: “Do not judge another until you have stood in his place.” Since it is impossible to stand in another person’s place, to be them, to have their baggage or to live their struggles, we can never judge another. Instead, we should be kind, sensitive, supportive and understanding.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the etymology of the name Chanukah derives from the same root as the word chinuch, to educate.  Explains Rav Hirsch, it used to be customary to spend time on Chanukah discussing, strategizing and recommitting to the importance of chinuch, of educating and inspiring our children.

The basic mitzvah of chanuka is ner ish u’beiso, the head of the household lights one candle and fulfills the mitzvah for his wife and children.  But, the Gemara continues, it is mehadrin, more proper, for ner l’chol echad v’echad, each person of the house to light their own menorah.

Rav Hirsch suggests that we can concern ourselves with ner ish u’beiso, lighting the fire in our heart, inspiring ourselves and making sure we are warm.  The proper thing to do, however, the enhanced way to live life, is to make sure each person in our home recognizes they are an individual flame, they can burn bright, and that they, too, have a special and unique role in illuminating the darkness.

There is nothing as gratifying and inspiring as being true to ourselves, pursuing our mission in life, and ridding ourselves of the burden of pretending to be something we are not.  With love, affection, support, and a regular affirmation of the emunah that both we and Hashem have in our children, we can stem the tide of these crises and help ensure the health and wellbeing of the generations to come.

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The Laws Haven’t Changed, We Have: Taking Stock of the Recent Scandals That Have Turned Heroes to Zeros

on Thursday, November 30 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

“I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life.  I think to myself: Just two?”

Leon Wiesltier (Against Identity)

The last few months have seen a cascade of revelations of gross misconduct among accomplished men who overnight went from objects of admiration to targets of derision.  There is a growing list of men whose public personas turn out to be radically inconsistent with their private acts and behaviors.

Sadly, men abusing their power to exploit women is nothing new.  What is new, however, is the enormous shift in society’s unwillingness to look the other way or excuse such indiscretions.  It was not that long ago that many not only gave a pass to a sitting president who took advantage of an intern, but villainized those who sought to hold him accountable.  That president was not only not derided or demonized for his behavior, he was the object of continued great approval, love, and affection.

Contrast that story with that of Matt Lauer, who just this week was accused of improper behavior; by sunrise Wednesday, the $25 million a year anchor was unceremoniously fired.  Gone are the days a highly visible company or organization could delay while researching the facts, investigating the allegations, or waiting to see if a criminal charge would be filed.  The radical shift has resulted in almost instantaneous consequences following a revelation.

This sea change in how we address these issues is refreshing and welcome, but how did it happen?

The answer is us.  The legal system hasn’t changed.  What changed is what we as a society are willing to tolerate, accept, or excuse.  A common theme in almost every one of the recent scandals is that “everyone knew” about their behavior.  Everyone knew, and if challenged everyone would tell you it was reprehensible.  And yet the combination of those two things somehow nevertheless resulted in indifference, not action.  Why?  Because society was comfortable looking the other way.  The attitude of “boys will be boys” and “that’s just how powerful people behave” enabled and even empowered corrupt people to perpetrate such heinous injustices.

As soon as we collectively decided such behavior was not only improper, but deplorable, a line was drawn and those finding themselves on the other side of it are being outed and held responsible.

There is much to say on this whole episode, but one critical point being overlooked is how much we as a community, through our standards, expectations and tolerance levels, can shape behavior.  Laws, both human, and as dictated by the Almighty, can guide us in right from wrong, but it is up to society to create the culture and atmosphere that will enforce those standards and hold accountable any who violate them, no matter their status or celebrity.

In our parsha, Vayishlach, a powerful man takes advantage of a vulnerable woman.  Shechem was the son of Chamor, the ruler of Canaan.  He was privileged, formidable, and he desired Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov so he violated her against her will.  Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments that this episode was a classic case of a ruler dominating a weak woman.

Shechem was used to getting what he wanted without resistance or consequence.  How would Dinah’s community, her band of brothers, respond to her exploitation?  Would they cower in fear? Would they look the other way?

Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, understood that if they remained passive and complacent, a precedent of tolerance would be set for such behavior.  They refused to be indifferent and executed a scheme to avenge their sister’s violation and hold the perpetrator and his accomplices accountable.

Our rabbis find a source for a boy turning bar mitzvah at 13 years old from the fact that Shimon and Levi, who were 13 years old at the time, are labeled ish, men, when this incident occurred. The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented (Likkutei Sichos 5:421) “The fact that a source for Bar Mitzvah is derived from Shimon and Levi imparts another very important lesson: As soon as one becomes thirteen years of age, one is expected to have mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, to defend and protect the integrity and sanctity of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, as well as each and every Jew.”

An immature child can sit on the sideline.  To be an adult is to have the courage and tenacity to stand up to injustice, to intercede on behalf of the vulnerable, and to protest the violation of moral boundaries.

The Chizkuni points out that the Torah records the obligation to show kindness and sensitivity to the widow and orphan, b’lashon rabim, in the plural.  Why? He explains that all of society bears the iniquity, be it active or passive, when it tolerates oppression.  This commandment is written in the plural because the community is measured by the environment it sets and the behavior it tolerates.  Even those individuals not actively guilty of oppressing the less fortunate are culpable because of their indifference and apathy to their plight.

Matt Lauer was the recipient this week of the swift arm of social justice. The court of public opinion has quickly become demanding and unforgiving of what just recently was tolerated, even tacitly accepted behavior among powerful men.  To be sure, we must be vigilant to preserve due process, not rush to judgment, or hurt innocent people in the process of holding the guilty accountable.  But, as the spiritual heirs of Shimon and Levi we must continue to embrace our power as a society to implement right from wrong and good from bad.  We have learned the hard way that whether people behave properly and appropriately is as much a function of what we tolerate as if it is right or wrong.  That places an enormous burden and responsibility on us to carefully consider the culture and atmosphere we create.  Let us choose carefully and wisely.  A world of vulnerable people is counting on us.

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This Thanksgiving Weekend, Thank Those Who Packed Your Parachute

on Wednesday, November 22 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Years ago, someone gave me a Tony Robbins CD to listen to. I was excited and eager to hear the wisdom of one of today’s greatest motivational speakers. He introduced his talk by saying that he has the secret to both happiness and success. If you follow his advice and begin each and every day of your life exactly as he prescribes, he can all but guarantee you will find yourself happier, and able to achieve your goals and dreams.

The secret to happiness and to achieving success, he said, is to start every day of your life by expressing gratitude. As soon as you wake up, before doing anything else, say thank you. Be grateful and appreciative for being alive, having a roof over your head, having your health if you are lucky, your family, etc.

He continued that it isn’t enough to think appreciatively, but you need to start your day by verbalizing and actually saying thank you out loud. If you do, Robbins announced, the rest of your day is guaranteed to be successful and happy.

What Tony Robbins is teaching in the 21st century is correct, but for me, and for you, and for Jewish 3-year-olds around the world, it was nothing new. Judaism has taught this exact principle since its inception thousands of years ago. From an early age, we teach our children that the first words on their lips every morning must be Modeh ani lefanecha, I am grateful to you God for the fact that I woke up, that I am alive to see another day, for the wonderful blessings in my life and for my relationship with You. It has been inculcated within us from our youth that we don’t wake up feeling entitled, deserving and demanding. Rather, we wake up with a deep and profound sense of gratitude, appreciation and thanks.

In fact, the Chiddushei HaRim, the first Rebbe of Ger, says we are called Yehudim, Jews, after our forefather Yehuda, because like the source of his name, we are to be characterized by gratitude. In this week’s Parsha, Leah gives her son the name Yehuda; our rabbis note that Leah was the first person to truly say thank you.  Her gratitude wasn’t momentary or fleeting, rather it was captured in her son’s name in perpetuaty to reflect her desire to continuously and constantly be grateful.  Rav Yeruchem Levovitz explains that every time Leah said her sons name, she would be reminded of how much she had to be grateful for.

A couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled, Raising Children With an Attitude of Gratitude, Research Finds Real Benefits for Kids Who Say ‘Thank You’.  The author, Dianna Kapp, writes: “A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings indicate parents’ instincts to elevate the topic are spot-on. Concrete benefits come to kids who literally count their blessings.  Gratitude works like a muscle. Take time to recognize good fortune, and feelings of appreciation can increase.”

The mere act of giving thanks has tangible benefits, research suggests. A 2008 study of 221 children published in the Journal of School Psychology analyzed sixth- and seventh-graders assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with children assigned to list five hassles.

“The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here,” says University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons.  Parents need to model this behavior to build their children’s gratitude muscle. “It’s not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have,” Dr. Emmons says.

Everyday actions may be even more important than big efforts, researchers say. “Express gratitude to your spouse. Thank your kids,” Hofstra’s Dr. Froh says. “Parents say, ‘Why should I thank them for doing something they should do, like clean their room?’ By reinforcing this, kids will internalize the idea, and do it on their own.”

A fantastic exercise is to go around the dinner table as frequently as possible and ask everyone to share something specific they are grateful for that day.  It can be something someone else did for them, or something they feel Hashem did for them.  Either way, it will create an atmosphere of gratitude that will continue to spill over.

Another great activity is to keep a gratitude journal and never go to sleep without identifying a few things to be grateful for that day.  Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, a pioneer in research on gratitude, conducted a study in which he and his colleagues divided participants into three groups, each of which made weekly entries in a journal. The first group identified and wrote five things they were grateful for.  The second group made a daily list of five daily irritations, and a third control group listed five events that had affected them in some way.  The study concluded that those who kept a daily gratitude list felt better about their lives overall, were more optimistic, and reported fewer health problems or doctor visits than the other participants.

There are numerous apps and tools for keeping a gratitude journal that will remind you to spend time each day identifying things for which to be grateful.  But it is not enough to simply feel gratitude. Thanks must actually be expressed.

Who Packed Your Parachute?

Charles Plumb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands.  He was captured and spent six years in a Communist prison.  He survived that ordeal and one day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam and you were shot down!”  “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.  “I packed your parachute,” the man replied, “I guess it worked!”

That night, Plumb couldn’t sleep while thinking about that man.  He kept wondering what this man might have looked like in a sailor uniform.  He wondered how many times he might have passed him on the ship and never acknowledged him.  How many times he never said hello, good morning, how are you.  Plumb was a fighter pilot, respected and revered, while this man was just an ordinary, lowly sailor.  It continued to grate on his conscience.  Plumb thought of the many lonely hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the fabric together, making sure the parachute was just right and going to great lengths to make it as precise as can be, knowing that somebody’s life depended on it.  Only years later, did Plumb have a full appreciation for what this anonymous man did, and this is why he now goes around the world as a motivational speaker asking people to recognize who’s packing their parachute.

I have a friend who set up a couple 20 years ago.  He told me that every single year on their anniversary, this couple not only gets one another gifts but they get my friend, their shadchan, (matchmaker) a gift as well.  For their big anniversary they got him a big gift recognizing that the happiness they have together would never have happened without his bothering to set them up.

I know someone who received scholarships from the schools he attended growing up, from elementary school through graduate school.  When he became financially successful, the first thing he did was write a beautiful thank you note and make donations to each of the schools that helped give him a chance.

As we spend this weekend focused on Thanksgiving, it is a good time to ask, have we given thanks to those who contributed to the lives we are blessed to live?  Imagine if our kindergarten teacher got a note from us thanking her for nurturing us with love.  Imagine if our high school principal, our childhood pediatrician, our housekeeper growing up who cleaned our room, out of the blue got a gesture of gratitude showing that we cared enough to track them down and say thank you after all of these years.  Did we ever properly thank the teacher who was patient with us, the orthodontist who straightened out our teeth, the bus driver who drove us?  Did we express enough appreciation to the person who set us up with our spouse, gave us our first job, safely delivered our children?

It is so easy to fall into a sense of entitlement and to forget to be grateful. Why should I thank my children’s teachers? They’re just doing their job. Why should I be so appreciative to the waiter, or the custodian, or the flight attendant? Isn’t that what they are supposed to do? When was the last time we said thank you to whoever cleans our dirty laundry? Do we express gratitude regularly to our spouse who shops, cooks dinner, or who worked all day to pay for dinner, or in some cases did both? Are we appreciative of the small things like finding a parking spot, recovering from a cold, having a beautiful day, or tasting the sweetness of an apple?

It is so beautiful that we live in a country that dedicates a weekend to giving thanks.  However, we must remember why we are called Yehudim.  We don’t give thanks one day or one weekend a year.  Each and every day must begin with a statement of Modeh ani, and expression of gratitude to our Creator.  To be alive is itself a reason to be grateful, and to be grateful is to truly be alive.

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