4 min read
How to live a meaningful and spiritual life.
Very early on in my journey towards living a Jewish observant lifestyle, a rabbi sat me down and explained to me the details of the Jewish system of blessings before and after meals.
I was immediately enthralled by it; impressed and inspired.
As I began to implement this practice into my day-to-day living, I remember thinking that if Judaism only consisted of saying these blessings on our food, "dayennu", that would be enough to live a meaningful and spiritual life. Because when we take time to pause and give thanks for our food, an act we engage in multiple times a day, we move beyond our body's built-in selfishness and experience an expanded sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
I grew up in a world that didn't lack much in terms of material comfort and provisions, but greatly lacked a genuine sense of appreciation and gratitude for what we had. Yes, we were taught from an early age to say "please" and "thank you", but those words fulfilled a society nicety more than they expressed a strong awareness of the blessings in our lives. A perpetual desire for more seemed to overshadow a sense of appreciation of what already was.
Gratitude is a powerful, and even transformative, emotion. It draws us into the present moment, aiding us to see the goodness right in front of us. So often we spend our time, by means of streams of thought that flood our brains, either in the past, regretting what we believe we could've or should've had but don't, or in the not-yet-real future where we imagine how happy we'll be when we receive, buy or achieve a certain something that we presently don't have.
This kind of living keeps us suspended in a state of lack, of scarcity, as we're never quite satisfied with what's happening right here, right now. Or with what we have at any given moment. As is stated in Jewish thought: “A person who possesses 100 desires 200, one who possesses 200 desires 400.”
But another ancient Jewish teaching comes to teach us the antidote to this very human tendency. In the nearly 2000-year old text, Pirkei Avot, it is taught:
"Who is the wealthy person? One who is happy with his portion."
Wealth, Judaism teaches, is not a number that appears in your bank statement or investment portfolio. It is an inner sense of having exactly what you need. We can even say it is a conscious decision to realize that what we have is sufficient to warrant our appreciation and gratefulness. That doesn’t contradict the desire to build wealth or earn or achieve more, but it guides and encourages us to be grateful for what we have every step of the way and not wait for a future time to feel that now we have enough to express thanks and appreciation.
Modern-day psychology has echoed this ancient Jewish wisdom through its discovery of the incredible benefit that gratitude has on our mental health and quality of life.
Andrew Weil, MD, an internationally recognized leader in the field of health and wellness, has often referred to studies that demonstrate how a regular practice of gratitude can produce positive emotions in us, which lead to our brains reducing stress hormones, which improves the strength of our immune systems.
The Jewish system of blessings before and after meals offers us just this kind of regular practice of gratitude.
And while gratitude over our food is traditionally directed at God, in our modern-day society where the journey from farm table has become much more complex, it can be expanded to include others as well. Since different blessings are said on different categories of food (there are different blessings for fruits, vegetables, grains, bread, wine, etc.) it helps us to become more aware of where our food literally comes from and include the people and systems that brought us our food in our moment of gratitude. Before I take my first bite of a meal, and before I say my blessing, I often like to look at the food on the plate in front of me and imagine the farm where the food was grown, the farmer who grew it, and even those people who packaged it and delivered it.
In the Book of Psalms it is written: “It is good to give thanks.” Modern-day science and research is helping us to understand just how good it really is.