Psalm 54

“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.

Psalm 136

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?

Psalm 127

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.

Psalm 116

What can I give back to Adonai acknowledging all I have benefited from God? (116:12)

If the bounty of the world is our reward for being alive, what, if anything, should we give back to God? Although I don’t think the Psalmist asked the question this way, I read it as a rhetorical question. There is nothing that I need or even can give back to God to repay God for giving me life, a loving wife, children with gifts of their own to share, as well as employment, a home, and sufficient food.

First of all, it is given as a gift. When we receive a gift, the proper response is to be thankful. If we are not thankful then future gifts may be withheld, but the giver does not take back the gift. A gift by definition is given to and belongs to the recipient.

Second, what do you give a God who has, is, was, and will be, everything? Honestly speaking, God does not even need our thankfulness. God asks for loyalty, obedience, and appreciation, but it is not a demand issued by a tyrant on pain of death. We have the freedom to do as we want.

I suggest that we give thanks to God not to satisfy some Divine need but rather to remind ourselves of the importance and power of giving thanks. Thanksgiving is more than an overstuffed turkey and football. It is a pause in our lives to contemplate how lucky we are to be able to put any food on the table, not matter what it is, how little or how much.

My wife set aside a “Thanksgiving Jar” in the kitchen into which we place slips of paper indicating our gratitude for something that has happened. Slowly, over the course of time, the jar fills up. We take them out on Thanksgiving and read them aloud. It becomes a review of the good things of the past year, not necessarily in any particular order. God doesn’t need our Thanksgiving jar, but we certainly do.

Psalm 100

A psalm for thanksgiving …. Serve Adonai with happiness. (100:1-2)

Job said, “Adonai gives and Adonai takes away. May the name of Adonai be a source of blessing.” The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart elaborated, “It is permissible to take life’s blessings with both hands, provided thou dost know thyself prepared in the opposite event to take them just as gladly. This applies to food and friends and kindred, to anything God gives and takes away.”

Joy should not be dependent on receiving a particular thing. Anything we receive can be taken away. If we are happy just because we have a new device, are sitting down to a gourmet meal, or are in the company of a good friend, then when our device becomes old, our meal has been consumed, or our friend goes home, our happy feelings will evaporate.

We have an obligation to God and to all who spend time with us, especially our family, to do whatever we need to do to express our lives with a spirit of gratitude and happiness. Pirke Avot (1:15) expresses the simple act of greeting loved ones with a smile as a moral imperative: “Greet every person with a cheerful face!”

When we greet the day with positive energy, we are giving God an offering of happiness. The converse is expressed in the Star Wars Jedi philosophy by ‘Master Yoda:’ “Anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they.” In organizational life or interpersonal relationships, negativity and despair sap energy. When we live an unhappy or fearful life, we take something away from God.

We can best serve God by striving to live a positive, cheerful life. As Reb Nahman said, “It is a great Mitzvah to be in a constant state of happiness.”