“Like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap.” (124:7)
Upon recovery from a serious illness or surviving a life-threatening crisis, Jewish tradition suggests that we recite the blessing, “You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal ruler of the universe, who bestows goodness upon the undeserving, who bestowed favor upon me.” The blessing is recited in public, so those who hear can respond, “May the One who bestowed favor upon you continue to favor you with all that is good.” It is not enough to survive and breathe out a private “thank God!” Judaism prefers that we express our gratitude publicly.
“I recall Your wonders.” (77:12)
I love my wife. I confess, however, that I do not spend my days obsessing over why I love her, whether it makes sense to continue to love her, what it means to love her, whether the love is reciprocal, or how I should best express the love from moment to moment (note to self: I would do better if I did spend more time on the last question). For me, it is enough that I see her and remember the wonders of our life together; this sense of wonder and gratitude defines our loving relationship. And so it is with God.
“Adonai, who supports my life.” (54:6)
The human body, or any living system, plant or animal, is a miracle of complexity. Whether by evolution or by the word of God, life is a wonder. The individual life-form, from its cellular level functions to its large-scale interaction with its environment, has to function nearly perfectly in order to survive. I choose to express my gratitude for my existence to a God who created me and infused me with a life-force and sustaining energy. When the time comes for my life to end, I will gratefully return both my physical and metaphysical being to the Creator.
Praise Adonai; for God is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal. (136:1)
An honest theology acknowledges that God, creator of a world in which both good and bad happen to every person, perforce must be the cause of both good and bad things. As Detero-Isaiah says, “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil.” (45:7) Nonetheless, we also tend to believe that ultimately, the sum of our life experience, with all of its trials and travails, is beneficial. To put it another way, better to be born than never to have existed. Despite the suffering that we experience, the majority of our lives are pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling, and peaceful. For this, we should be thankful.
The lesson embodied in this verse is to be grateful for the good, even if the good is not complete. Do not be the kind of person who looks for what is missing. There is always something missing. You can always find the imperfection if you look hard enough. If you are the kind of person who does this, ask yourself why you have this compulsive need to find the faults. If you choose, you can be the kind of person who looks at a bad situation and finds something positive. What lesson can I learn from this difficult situation? How can it make me a better person? How can I avoid getting entangled in this difficulty in the future?
Who would you rather spend time with – the person who finds the silver lining in the storm clouds, or the person who obsesses about the one cloud on an otherwise perfectly sunny day?
Unless Adonai builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless Adonai watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain. (127:1)
We are God’s junior partners in the maintenance of the world. Everything we build relies on the existence of consistent and predictable natural law. In order for the bridge to bear the weight of a given amount of traffic, the engineer has to know that the materials will behave according to the laws of physics. In order for the medicine to treat the illness, the doctor relies on predictable chemical and biological interactions between the substance and the biological entity.
Bridges fail. Medication fails. A friend of mine computer-models fractures in materials. His models can only approximate how the real material behaves. This happens not because the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are capricious, but rather because our knowledge of how those laws function in the real world is incomplete.
We could live for long stretches of time without being aware of the builder. For this reason, Judaism urges us to pause before we enjoy a product of the natural world and say a blessing. “You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal sovereign of the universe, who created the food we are about to eat.” That spark of gratitude reminds of that the house in which we live had a designer and a builder.