Responding to Coronavirus: On Hakarat HaTov and not taking the everyday for granted
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 March 2020
In December 1943, while on a speaking tour of army camps for the Jewish Welfare Board, the American rabbi Milton Steinberg, most famous for the work ‘As a Driven Leaf’, suffered a major heart attack. After weeks of recuperating in hospital, he was finally permitted to go outside. In his first sermon back in his community, he spoke of the experience:
“After a long illness, I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And, as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience – all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment… The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high… A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the buildings – the golden glow of sunlight.
It touched me, too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing…
In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy… I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children, in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed.
And then I remembered how often, I, too, had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it.
And I said to myself – how precious is the sunlight but alas, how careless of it are we… I was reminded to spend life wisely.”
In Hebrew, this idea is known as HaKarat HaTov – recognising the good. Acknowledging, being grateful for, the small things in the everyday. Seeing and being present to the things we do not normally see. As it says in the ‘modim’ that we read a moment ago in the Amidah – al nissecha sheb’chol yom immanu – for Your miracles that are with us daily. As Arthur Green has written, we thank God mostly for the greatest gift of all “our ability to see the miraculous within the everyday”.
Yet it is a gift we sometimes squander. Sometimes it takes a shock, a deprivation – the curtailment of freedom, the loss of senses, the imposition of distance – to recognise what we once had.
This week I went to the supermarket for the first time in nearly a fortnight. An act so mundane, and yet one filled with extraordinary significance and blessing. To drive the car; to pick up a pint of milk; to exchange words with the person on the till and learn about his life (a man I’d met a hundred times but never taken a moment to really hear). “I remembered how often, I, too, had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it”
I know I am lucky to be have had this mundane experience. Many watching cannot – too unwell, or instructed to stay at home. I will not take it for granted again.
Nor do I take for granted returning to this Beit Tefillah for the first time in a week – the ability to pray with community in this new and special way. I am filled with gratitude for the messages of love and support of a community over the last week, and for the examples of goodness and care within our community and our lives. I know how lucky we are.
“How precious is the sunlight but alas, how careless of it are we… may we remember to spend life wisely.”
Not all of us, I know, feel able to see the sunlight this evening. But I invite those who feel able to join me in the blessing on your supplement sheet – the Talmudic blessing for seeing something extraordinarily beautiful. May we remember to see the beauty that we normally take for granted over these difficult weeks and beyond. Despite it all, may we find within ourselves the “ability to see the miraculous within the everyday”
Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam she-kacha lo b’olamo
Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, who has such as this in Your world.