Predictably, upon seeing yesterday’s Rag Tag Daily Prompt of “Graceful,” images of ballerinas, swans, and supple yoga practitioners popped into my mind. None of these images fit my modus operandi, not today, not ever. I have managed moments of gracefulness, I am sure, but as a general rule I’m a duck, not a swan. Ducks may look graceful in the water, but on land they waddle and squawk! In my girlhood days, I may have briefly considered taking ballet lessons, but I was too busy climbing trees and running roughshod around the farm with my brothers and friends.
Even when my first impression of a word seems to point in one direction, I love to dissect it and consider different punctuation or vowels to see if there are other interpretations or word usage that might lead to something interesting. In great part this tendency is a result of my limited knowledge of Hebrew, and the process of Jewish study that does much the same thing.
Dividing the word into two (and adding an “l”) did lead to something interesting and prompted two almost simultaneous reactions. “Oh boy, now I’m getting somewhere!” “Oh no, now I’m going to have to write about something spiritual and religious.”
Not that I’m opposed to writing in the religious/spiritual vein, and am comfortable describing my own take on things (Jewish with a Quaker background) while giving credence to the beliefs of others. But the word “G/grace” felt to me like a bit of a minefield. My limited knowledge of Christian thought and belief is that Grace (the “capital G” kind) has a different focus and importance than it does in Judaism. Ignorance is definitely not bliss, and I confess to knowing just enough about both approaches to get myself in trouble.
But, also predictably, I press onward! Yesterday morning I was reading about the purpose and effects of blessing and gratefulness in Jewish practice. For several years I have been trying to develop at least a minimal regular Jewish practice of ritual based on tradition, but also informed by my individual experience and realities.
One practice that has taken hold is starting my day with “Modah ani.” “I am grateful/ thankful…” The traditional prayer thanks God for returning one’s soul and acknowledges God’s faithfulness and compassion. According to traditional practice, it is said even before rising from bed, but I wait until it is light outside so I can look out at the new day. Sometimes I say the traditional words but more often I simply say “Modah ani,” and let the trees and sky that are part of my view reflect all the things I am grateful for.
Judaism provides a blessing for every occasion, and I do mean every occasion. Perhaps the most startling one for those investigating the practice for the first time is the blessing recited when going to the bathroom. This blessing acknowledges the wonder of the human body, and the serious negative effects when any of the parts are not working properly. You may be tempted to laugh, but anyone who has endured even minor bodily dysfunction, or even worse colon cancer or other serious affliction, knows what a miracle the “routine” functioning of the human body truly is.
There are blessings for seeing a rainbow, breaking bread, seeing a learned person, studying Torah, putting on a tallit (prayer shawl); for specific foods (bread, vegetables, fruit), for celebrating holidays, for lighting the Shabbat/holiday candles.
There are blessings for washing hands, for healing, when learning of a death, for spices, before and after meals, when doing something for the first time (not just the actual first time, but every first time in a particular year or holiday cycle), and a blessing upon seeing the new moon.
That is not a complete list. All of these blessings are designed to help us recognize that there is holiness in even the most simple things and that we are the beneficiaries of uncountable blessings.
So that leads me back to Grace. Whatever its spiritual meaning is in Christianity or Judaism (or perhaps in other theologies), and whether it is more or less important to each of them, doesn’t seem so important to me. There are moments of Grace (yes, the capital-G kind) so often that it may seem cumbersome to try and acknowledge each of them. But I think it is precisely because there are so many such moments that it is important to acknowledge them. I do not think the words themselves are so important or whether they are said in Hebrew, English, Latin, Spanish, or silently in your heart. Remembering to mark these moments has a powerful effect on our perception of the world around us. When we recognize that blessings abound everywhere, we are able to approach others and our world with kindness and compassion rather than with suspicion and fear. Surely that is Grace.
This morning the bare apple trees in my yard were covered in raindrops because it had been raining all night. The skies were clearing and as the sun broke through the clouds the trees glistened with rainbows. The wind began to blow and within just a few moments the water was quickly blown from the trees and they returned to their winter bleakness. I had no time to grab my phone to take a picture, but the image remains in my heart. Because soon, God willing, they will look like this. Modah ani.
©Martha Hurwitz, 2/27/20