Do psychologists think humans are just machines, computers, animals, or gene expressors? Is there evidence that such things as altruism, freedom and meaning are real, or just socially constructed strategies that humans evolved to enhance communal living and complex social systems? What do current trends in positive psychology tell us about what it is to be a human, and how should we understand concepts such as gratitude?
Dennis Gilbride, PhD recently retired from his position as professor in the Counseling and Psychology Services Department at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Prior to his position at GSU, he was a professor and department chair at Syracuse University. In this presentation, with a response by Rabbi Michael Fel, he discusses cognitive psychology, its religious predecessors, and the many thinkers that bridged them particularly within the last 150 years, offering a rebuttal to the machine-like determinism that predominated thinking about psychology for a large part of the 20th century.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This presentation on February 26, 2023 was the last in a series of lectures at Temple Emanu-El exploring human existence and agency).
Dennis Gilbride: Hello. It’s very nice to see you all. I actually participated through Zoom the last time, so I saw the speakers, but I didn’t get to see you, and heard your voices in asking questions. So it’s very nice to see the people that are here coming out on a – it’s not quite snowy, you know, but winter’s day. This is the third, as the rabbi said, this is the third of the three of us that are doing these Sunday presentations, and then there’s another event. And I think it’s important for you to know, and you probably get the sense, that it was a collaborative process. So with the help of Zoom, I participated in discussions that the three of us had: what did we want to talk about from our professional experience? How would we approach these same kinds of questions? And we even shared a document together that we wrote about what we’re up to. So the good fortune that I have of coming third is that I got to see and hear what everybody else presented. And then I’m going to really try to tie that into what I’m going to talk about today.
So one of the first things I want to know is – how many of you have been here for all three? Wow. So my wife said that, but we we’re, you know, in Atlanta, but we’re on Zoom. That’s true for the Zoom people. We don’t get to see the hands from the Zoom people, but they count too. So that’s good. So you’ll recognize some of the some of the issues that we talked about.
The big word for all three of these presentations has been “determinism.” So, to what extent are we determined? First, the first week, in terms of our brains, the second week in terms of the physical universe that we exist in, and then this week it will be – it’ll be from a psychological perspective.
Okay, so the first question is: what do psychologists think about free will, choice, agency? What do psychologists think about that? We asked Peter what a physicist thinks about that. But we’re asking today what do psychologists think about that? The first sort of trick of the whole three is: we’ve already sort of said what we think is human, right. We’re saying free will, choice and agency seem to have something really central to do with what it is to be a human. So we’re already sort of setting up the discussion about free will, choice and agency, in contrast to determinism.
The first answer to that is: What would a psychologist think about free will, choice and agency?
The same thing that Jews think about everything – two Jews, three opinions, right. That’s just how we do it. Two weeks ago, when the rabbi was speaking, it was the Ten Commandments weekend. The Torah portion was the Ten Commandments. And the rabbi brought up that, even though it’s in the Torah, and The Ten Commandments is one of the central facts of the Jewish experience, and it’s the argument for one of the central contributions of Jews to world morality. Nobody could agree on what the people actually heard – the rabbi gave you four or five different assertions about what people heard, some people assert that the people heard the whole Ten Commandments, some people heard the aleph, which doesn’t even have any sound right. There is a tradition in Judaism that we disagree about everything. But it’s more than that, and this is what I want us to start by thinking about with this presentation in particular – the Talmud does something that’s just counter our current culture, and that is, they put in everybody’s opinion, it isn’t just the winners or the highest-status person, it’s everybody’s opinion.
It makes the book [Talmud] a lot longer, right, so the Talmud, takes up a whole shelf, because everybody’s opinion gets included, which just isn’t something we do now – that if our opinion is right, we just leave the other opinions out. And they [the Rabbis] also do something else in the Talmud which is remarkable, and that is, if they think they disagree with someone, particularly someone who has status or is of Interest, they try to find a way for that person not to be wrong. So instead of saying, “this person’s just stupid, they just got it wrong,” which is how our culture talks about the people that we disagree with, they say, “No no no, this is what they were really talking about. This is how they got it right.” So that the Talmud did two things that I want us to think about as we go through the list of how psychologists have looked at things, and that is: they put in all the opinions, and they try to find a way that even the people you disagree with aren’t just wrong, and we sort of respect that. It’s just this brilliant Talmudic approach. So this is not a bug of Judaism, it’s a feature. And it would be nice if it was a feature of our whole culture.
The other thing we need to know about psychologists is that we’ve always had, like, envy of the empirical sciences. And so I’ve seen Peter present a lot, and when he presents on LIGO, he’s got beautiful pictures, and you see all the all the numbers and it’s like, really cool stuff and it’s like, “real,” and strong. And so psychologists have always felt maybe we’re a little mushy, we can’t really demonstrate what we do. So there’s been a push, there’s always been this sort of push, in psychology, to try to make it more empirical, make it more science-like.
And in fact, this goes right to Freud, who started with the study of neurons. And when his clients – first his patients, because he was a physician – first came to him who were depressed, he gave them cocaine. And he gave them cocaine because it made them less depressed. if Freud would have had Prozac, he might never have discovered the unconscious. Because it’s like he wanted to help people not be depressed, and help people get better. And he wasn’t just needing to be psychological; he was a physician, he was a scientist.
We also see, when we’re talking about how psychologists look at the world, that medications have replaced straitjackets, and psychiatrists and psychologists, as we saw in section 1 [the first presentation], one of these have moved toward neurology. A lot of psychology has moved from the business of talking about things like free will, choice, agency, and things we’ll talk about later, and moved toward neurology.
And then there’s this other problem in our field, and that is that the funders privilege evidence-based practices – like, biology and symptoms, and they’ve moved away from theory, self-actualization, meaning and values. The people who fund good psychological science are really only interested in determinism. There’s really one interesting exception, and probably the largest funder of the non-deterministic science, and that’s the Templeton Foundation. So this – Sinai and Synapses, that’s funded by Templeton. In fact, and as we go through toward the end of my presentation today, almost – not almost all – a lot of the research was funded by Templeton. This person who’s funding us getting to be here today, me getting to be here today, this private wealthy fund person, has probably done the most for studying those other aspects of being human that aren’t just deterministic. We’re very lucky, and it’s not an accident that here we are, being funded by Templeton.
I want to start from the most deterministic, and for those of you who were here, this is a revisit by Mr. Machine. Mr. Machine – we met him two weeks ago. And he’s decided to come back, because the psychologists also have this sort of Mr. Machine, in determinism. If you remember two weeks ago, Peter, sitting over there asked you these five questions, where you fit in terms of, on the scale of determinism, from “my body does what it does and that’s it” all the way to “I’m able to figure out what I ought to do, and almost always succeed.” Does everybody remember seeing this? And does everybody remember kind of giving scores? And people that seemed like 3 and 4, some people didn’t like being stuck with those. So they said, like, “3.5.” And so you saw this scale of how deterministic you felt.
Very few people, I think, came up with 1’s, who felt they were totally deterministic. Is the rabbi here? The rabbi and I were talking about this last week. We switched it to a percentage instead of 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. You know, how much do you feel that you’re determined, from not determined at all – you know, little determinism – or you could talk about it in a more positive way, you know, what freedom do you have 20%, 30%, 40%? We could think about it in those terms. And then the rabbi said something interesting: because we were talking about the difference between, genetically, us and chimpanzees is only about 1 or 2%. It’s only about 1% or 2% difference between us and chimpanzees, but it makes all the difference in who’s on which side of the bars when you go to the zoo. So that 1% percent really is in our favor.
I want to take the most extreme, in this context, example of determinism. And in fact, Freud is often seen as over-deterministic, that there are so many different unconscious factors and drives that are controlling your behavior, you know, you can’t even find your way through. If you get on top of one of them, another takes over. The idea of over-determinism – so he actually said this, right. And it’s sort of interesting that the book that this is from, The Future of an Illusion, is required reading, I think, in all religious-studies programs in America. So it’s like religious studies programs, and here I am, in a synagogue with a person who’s saying “religion is an illusion that hopefully should just go away” – what he actually felt. But the line, the famous line – so you probably heard this, but you may or may not have read it. “However, psychoanalytic investigation of the individual teaches with especial emphasis that god is in every case modeled after the father and that our personal relationship to god is dependent upon our relation to our physical father, fluctuating and changing with him, and that god at bottom is nothing but an exalted father.”
Freud didn’t use our common psychology speak – “well, it kind of leans toward,” “the evidence kind of suggests,” he knew how to write a sentence, right! And so I think his suggestion was that we should take the prayer book, and it should “Baruch Atah (fill in your father’s name).” That was sort of his approach.
How many of you have heard of this book [Beyond Freedom and Dignity]? How many of you read this book? How many of you still own this book? One – two, only two? But most of you have heard of the book. And probably a lot of you read it, maybe as part of your undergraduate psychology class- is that where you read it in undergraduate psychology, they made you read it – so then you sold it back at the end of the semester. But it’s interesting, because “the million-copy bestseller,” you know, popular psychology doesn’t sell a million copies anymore. I mean, this was a big deal. And it came after his Walden Two, which said similar things. This is the most aggressive way of talking about that. We’re determined, and he wasn’t kidding. He meant this. And I saw him toward the end of his life at a conference, and he went out saying, you know, “The best you can do is just try to reorganize the contingencies of reinforcement in your environment to get the outcomes that you want. And we can all do that, you know, and it’s like, that’s it.” So he really meant it.
So the New York Times, at the bottom, says “If you plan to read only one book this year, this is probably the one you should choose.” 1971 – the one book you should read is that “you are 100 percent determined, with no freedom and no dignity.” So that was what Skinner said. So I want to do a little Talmudic adjustment for Skinner: Rabbi Aha says to Rabbi Skinner, “What do you mean people don’t have dignity? We were created in the image of God how can you say we don’t have we don’t have dignity? And how can you say we don’t have freedom? God gave us dignity.” So Rabbi Aha says, you know, “Rabbi Skinner, what are you talking about? What are you talking about?” Rabbi Ishmael says, “No no no no, you misunderstood. Rabbi Skinner’s talking about this boy. And this boy was walking up the stairs to go into his front door. And a snake came out and bit him as he was going in, and he got very, very ill. But he survived, this boy. And so from then on, what he did is he would only sort of sneak in to the house through the back door, and then go into the house that way.” That’s who Rabbi Skinner was talking about – that boy. In the Q&A, you can come ask me more about that boy if you want to.
We’re – can I say that? We’re in a suburb of Boston here, so it’s – no, I can’t say that? It’s a whole different state! People have mixed feelings about that. (laughter) Some people say we’re a suburb or something. So here’s another person from Harvard, E.O. Wilson, and how many people know E.O. Wilson? A lot of you know E.O. Wilson. He’s mostly known for his ants, which he’s kind of showing there, but his sociobiology really got him a lot of, probably mostly negative, attention. It also got some people harassing him. But what he did was [he] took his evolutionary psychology, or evolutionary biology, and apply it to psychology, saying what we’re going to hear in a straight evolutionary-psychology way: that evolution accounts for all of these factors. Evolutionary psychology, these things we consider human, so: “Gods and religions in some, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. Like maypoles and beehives, they are created by members of the group, and they organize the activity of the group.”
The evolutionary psychologists say that this religious stuff is just the way for us to figure out how to work together and be more efficient at staving off the people that are after us. But there have always been [counter] voices. So that was our Mr. Machine – more Mr. Machine voices. There have always been voices that have said, “No no no no no, there’s much more to human beings.”
We have William James – I’m sure most of you have heard of William James. He wrote important books about the importance of religion. He wrote it in an interesting way, because he said, “I don’t really take this religion stuff seriously, but all these other people do, and they’re not nuts.” Which is a big thing to say, because most people today say, “Well, if you take the religion stuff seriously, you’re nuts.” And he said “No, they’re not nuts. I don’t get it, I don’t feel it, but they’re not nuts.”
You have Jung, who was very much a Freudian, but then absolutely said “there’s more to humans, we have this whole deep collective unconscious.” So he was pushing a different view of humans. You have Rogers and the humanists, and Maslow – somebody, I believe, likes Maslow in this group? I see, thank you.
You have the Existentialists, who say “Existence precedes essence.” Interesting, the Existentialists all talked about radical choice, and the biggest voices were during World War II. You either chose to be part of the resistance or you were a collaborator. And you can talk about social pressure, talk about, “oh, your life is at risk,” – make your choice, you’re a collaborator or you’re the resistance.
And Viktor Frankl, whose book is here — this is another book some of you might know [Man’s Search for Meaning]. Many of you have seen this book. Frankl talked about how the center of human life was meaning. And for those of you who don’t know, he had one very famous sentence. Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp survivor, and he’s talking about meaning and choice in the worst possible situation, in which you’re just crushed as a human being. And he said: that “people were still marching into the camps with the Shema on their lips.” That’s what it is to be a human.
And of course, psychotherapy is premised on the fact that that we have choice, agency, and an ability to change. And we see the vision – this slide was from my wife. The client oftentimes sees themselves as very determined that their genes or their life circumstances means that they are completely shackled, and they have no choice. But the therapist often says, “No, we can help you on that.”
Now I know our tradition here is to kind of keep going, but this is really hard for me as a teacher to, like, not give any chance for feedback or anything for this one, because we’re going to rotate into something slightly different. Does anybody have anything they want to say or ask at this point? It’s sort of a quick overview of the big names.
Audience member: I thought there should have been a sixth choice before, of “I know what I should do,” “I always know what I should do,” and “I seldom but sometimes don’t do it”.
Dennis Gilbride: A sixth choice, okay. So you can edit your slides, Peter, right.
What I want to talk about now is a current emphasis in one part of psychology. Much of it is funded by multiple places, but a lot of it is funded by Templeton, a lot of the positive psychology people. And I want to – just before we do the positive psychology people to review – and Victoria isn’t here, is that still true? I’m not seeing Victoria. Oh, hi Victoria. (laughter) So that’s good. So if I got it wrong, she can’t really say anything, because we got them cut off, right.
So hopefully I’ll get it right, but this was what I took from her lecture [the first in the series] at the end, you know, in my notes. And that is how not to be on autopilot. So she was – her Mr. Machine was autopilot, that “are we just on autopilot?” And I heard her say five things that I thought were really, really interesting, and that she documented in her research. And that is: serious attention, repetition, focus, intention, and core values. Now, I expected the first four from her, but I was really surprised that her recent research said, “And your values really make a difference.”
I was thinking about this list and this event, because what we have here – and the rabbi demanded it, because he told you to turn off your phones – so he wanted serious attention, and focus, and intention, and your core values. And your core values. You choose where you where you spend your time Saturday morning – Sunday morning you I don’t know where you were Saturday morning, I saw some of you yesterday. Sunday morning, you got up and came here. Your values are changing who you are neurologically. That’s what I heard her say, that where you put your attention, you’re not on autopilot. You have all chosen to be here in this very intentional way.[Slide on Positive Psychology shown]
Let me say why this matters. Of all the positive psychology variables – and they had some really interesting ones, a lot of them were more Christian-based, and they have a lot on forgiveness and they have a lot on the major moral positions. But the one that’s getting a lot of attention now is gratitude.[Slide shown of gratitude board]
In fact, when the Saulsons came and visited us, they brought this gratitude board to our house. I want to talk some about what we know, so now I’m going to sort of switch from theory to being a little more empirical.
So what do we know? Gratitude is really good for you. It’s really good for you, it’s good for you in ways that you would expect it to be good for you, where it’s positive emotion, but it’s also good for you in some really surprising ways. You sleep better, so if you sleep really badly and you have a lot of gratitude, think, “Wow, it could be much worse.” (laughter) You have greater optimism; you have more connectedness to others. More connectedness to others – so that’s interesting. This means that this gratitude just isn’t narcissism, “look how cool my life is.”
This is something quite different, this sense of gratitude. […] I don’t know if the current Siddur Sim Shalom on Friday night says, “And accepting in humility the blessings that are yours.” They have that line along with “the blessings of the children accepting in humility the blessings that are yours.” That’s gratitude – feeling loved and cared for by others.
Better physical health – there’s a lot of work on the physical health stuff. It’s good for your health, and it buffers against biological threat responses during collaborative teamwork. When teams get together and they all appreciate what each other does, and then they go into a stressful situation, they physiologically have lower stress responses. Lower stress responses – this is a good thing! This gratitude thing is a good thing!
I want to talk about another specific study, because this is really, really important for something we’re going to talk about in a second. A specific study – and what they did is that they randomly assigned people to two groups. One group had a daily time when they were reminded to think about something they were grateful for, and another group at the same time was told “Think about some of the challenges you have in your life,” or some of the things that are – you know, things that we do all the time some of the times we’re thinking about things we’re happy about and some of them are things that we’re not happy about. But they randomly assigned them – so any you who are empiricists, or took psychology undergraduate or psychology, you know, we really like random assignment, because it gets rid of all those other things [confounding variables]. It gets rid of all the stuff about personality or life history or socioeconomic status and all that. It just means that the groups are divided on this one variable.
And what they found is that there’s more positive affect, which you would expect, you know, if you’re thinking about positive things. But there’s also less negative affect. And this is, over time, not in that particular moment, but over the course of that week, over the course of that month, if you purposefully try to think about things you’re grateful for, then you have less times when you’re thinking about the things that you’re not so happy about, more time spent exercising – now that’s just bizarre, why should you have more time spent exercising? You have fewer reported physical symptoms.
And then another really very surprising one – you’re more likely to help someone else. It makes you a better person in ways that you probably think helping other people is a good thing makes you a better person. The top ones are kind of obvious: positive affect, less negative affect. But helping other people, it takes it to a completely different level.
So one of the things that I was thinking – and I wanted to sort of set the rabbi up on this – is with this group, what we would do is we’d run this experiment in this synagogue. What we do with you guys is we’ll assign half of you to come to minyan every week, and half of you, during that same time, to watch cable news. And then at the end of a month, we’ll see who has more positive affect, who spent more time exercising, who reported fewer physical symptoms, and who were more likely to help someone else. Kind of an interesting thought there.
Audience Member: I have a quick question. This is about recognizing gratitude towards others. What about the impact of being aware that other people are grateful for what you have done, or what you do?
Dennis Gilbride: That’s really interesting. Most of the research is just the person taking this moment and saying, you know, “Here’s the things that I’m appreciative of, that I’m appreciative that I’m alive, I’m appreciative that I have a wonderful wife, that I have wonderful friends, and that I have that have all that.” So you are saying that recognizing – we’re hearing people express gratitude towards you, right, that it’s got to be good. I can’t pop up any empirical studies; I have a whole list after my slides of studies. That isn’t how we tend to frame the questions right now, but it’s a really good frame.
Audience Member: So I noticed – I’m reading Renee Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and I noticed that what appears to be funded in this arena is sociological research rather than psychological. But she talks about “near enemies,” which comes from Buddhism, as opposed to you know, opposite enemies. And I think that what Rabbi is talking about, maybe a near enemy of gratitude, which is something that comes from the ego, as opposed to um gratitude from the universe. I’ll bet you that the rabbi’s going to address that, so that’s an interesting thing.
Dennis Gilbride: I can summarize the questions. Yes, it’s like you are in the exact right place at the exact right time, because the question was: is there is there a difference between addressing gratitude as I said to my wife once she’s a great cook and she makes me dinner or thanking God for this food, you know, but the wife who makes it, and I should thank God, absolutely. I thank God for making my wife. But your question’s really really interesting, and it’s like – I really want to talk more about that, but I think that’s where we roll over to the rabbi to that he gets to do most of the God talk. And I’m supposed to like keep it with the empirical data. That’s a fair question that I get to answer when I when they do that a lot of – this research is done by Christians, and so there does tend to be, for some, there’s a whole set of people that know it is absolutely secular, but there is a transcendent undertone to a lot of this research. And I think that does show up, and it does make a difference, and it does matter.
But when they’re doing particular interventions, like when we do interventions with college students – as you know, college students are just having a terrible time now. It’s very hard to be an undergraduate. If any of you have children or grandchildren or you teach at the University, you know that the students are under a lot of pressure right now. And so they’re doing a lot of this kind of work where they’ll send them an email – “think about something that you’re grateful for.” They tend not to want to activate people around sort of a religious or a transcendence thing even though a lot of people may go there themselves. So I haven’t seen the actual data about if you’re grateful to God or if you’re just grateful to all these other people and make that connection, and I’m grateful to my wife, but I should be grateful to God for giving me my wife.
You know, the people that go that way, but my guess is that’s what the rabbi is going to talk about. Sure, can I show my one last slide? Because I think it’s a lead-in, and it also is perfect for this question. And this is actually from Siddur Sim Shalom, and they actually have brachot of gratitude in the back of the little daily red book. So if any of you ever go to minyan, those of you get assigned to go to minyan – so if you go to that, Heschel is saying this exact issue that “the insight of wonder must be constantly kept alive, since there’s need for daily wonder, there’s a need for daily worship.” This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to fill the hidden love and wisdom in all things, that everything, as you properly said, everything goes back to God.
Michael Fel: So same joke every week, my rebuttal. So I want to pick up on the piece of positive psychology that Dennis has been talking about, this idea of “how we choose to live our lives” – as Professor Rotkow pointed out two weeks ago – “has an impact on how we see the world,” and also, the intentions – that we can choose to be someone who gives thanks, and how we can have some kind of agency. We can choose to surround ourselves with variables that create us and make us be the people that we want to be.
So first off, you’ll notice I gave us the term “thanks-givers,” because in many ways the Jewish people are supposed to be thanks-givers. This is taken from Genesis 29:35. This is the part of the Torah which discusses how Jacob, Rachel and Leah, their “Three’s Company” sort of experience, where Rachel is the more beloved wife and has trouble conceiving, and Leia seemingly is able to have child upon child. The text reads, “Vatahar od vateled ben,” “That she conceived again, and she bore a child, a son, and she declared this time, ‘I will praise God’s name,’ therefore she named him Judah.” And there she stopped bearing kids.
So the name Yehuda, that child, comes from the same root word which means “to offer gratitude or praise.” And ultimately, we the Jewish people are the descendants from this tribe, and so we are the descendants of the one who gives thanks. We are thanks-givers. We come from this root, yud dalet hey, and because of the way Hebrew conjugates, sometimes the yud drops out, sometimes the hay will leave us, right, but you have Yehuda, you have your hudim, Jews. And so Jews, you could say, are thanks-givers.
And one of the things that we do is we specialize in giving gratitude. We specialize in finding moments of expressing gratitude to, I would say specifically, God. So the first thing you’re supposed to say when you wake up, and I think we covered this, is Modeh Ani. And you see there that first word is connected to that yud-dalet-hey root. “I thank You, living and eternal sovereign, for Your kindness in restoring my soul. How great is your faithfulness.” The first thing you do when you wake up isn’t [to] begrudgingly turn off your alarm or hit snooze, but you’re meant to offer gratitude. And I will tell you, as a parent of three kids, this does make a difference in my life.
I will tell you, there are days when my kids come and hit the bed, or they wake me up and they say – in my mind, they’re saying “Good morning poppy, it’s so nice to see you, thank you,” right. What they’re really saying is “Can we go downstairs? I lost my stuffy.” And I tell myself in my mind, and I hear it in my head, “It is a blessing to wake up and to have kids to wake me up, and so I can get on with the work of my day.” And that sort of shifts me from feeling “yech” to a feeling of, like, what a gift it is to be alive every morning.
We sing Ma Tovu, how nice it is to be in this sacred space, and then we move into a litany of brachot recognizing the benefits that we have in our lives, the ability to distinguish between day and night, recognizing that we’re created in God’s image, who for giving us clothing, for giving us the ability to have the things that we need, not necessarily the things that we want – for giving us courage and strength. And so, in the morning, already off the bat, several brachot trying to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
I want to share this part of the Talmud, Mesechet Brachot, which presents another opportunity for gratitude.
Yehudah says, “In the name of Rav: Four people need to offer Thanksgiving: Those who traveled across the sea, those who crossed the wilderness, those who were sick and recovered, and those who were imprisoned and released.”
Four specific types of situations where you are obligated to give thanks. And so:
The Gemara asks, ‘Well, what’s the blessing you say in that particular instance?,’ and Yehudah says, “Blessed is God who bestows acts of loving kindness.”
And here’s what’s really interesting: this is the bracha called “benching Gomel.” Perhaps you’ve seen it done in the synagogue, it’s in our siddur, it’s been expanded in scope a little bit. Again, the people who are obligated are “one who crosses the sea, one who goes on a long journey, one who was sick and experienced healing,” or the expanded one, “one who sometimes we went through a scary situation and emerged free,” and “one who was incarcerated and became free.”
And what’s really powerful about this blessing – first off, if you ever have a moment, we’re very quick to say, “Oh, it’s a shehecheyanu moment,” right. This is like a special moment we should recognize, that we should Infuse this moment with God’s presence. But our tradition actually also says that in these moments when you’ve experienced salvation, or you’ve come through a difficult situation, you are not only – we give you words and language to describe emerging from surgery, having recovered from a car accident, having survived a near-death experience. But Abaye says, “And they must offer this before 10 people in the presence of a minyan.” Ideally, the way we do this is during the Torah service. And what’s really powerful is that it takes this personal feeling of gratitude that you have for yourself, and you actually share it with the community. And it’s meant to be an interactive experience where the person, after taking their Aliyah, says, “Barukh atah Hashem,“ right, “Our God, sovereign of time and space, who rewards the undeserving with goodness and who has rewarded me with goodness.” And then the congregation responds back to you, “May the one who rewarded you with all goodness reward you with all goodness forever.”
And so all of a sudden, joy and gratitude isn’t something that you experience as an individual, but it’s meant to be experienced as a community. And so when we talk about expressing gratitude in others and feeling that gratitude brushes off on people, and it perhaps impacts your neighbors. And so built into our sense of community, of peoplehood, is an opportunity to express gratitude for the things that we have.
I’ll also note – just a little thing for you to think about as you sit at your seder tables, a beautiful teaching, which says that when you retell the story of Pesach. In a lot of ways, it covers all four of these situations, right – crossing the Sea of Reeds – yes, crossing the desert and making it to the land of Israel, right. You can expand the scope: we were sick and suffering in the in Egypt, and we emerged out of it in a better place, right. And obviously we were imprisoned, we were enslaved, and we became free.
What’s really powerful is if you look at the Korban, the sacrifice that was made in the days of the Temple for giving a thanks-giving, there was an actual sacrifice you could offer. Those sacrifices were offered with unleavened bread and offered with leavened bread. And so some commentators look at the fact that Pesach feels like we should be reciting benching Gomel. And the question is: in the days of the Temple, when we made the sacrifice, we had leavened bread and unleavened bread. And what’s the first question of Manish Tana? “Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?” I’ll let it sink in with you as you get to your Pesach seder.
For all the research currently being done in positive psychology, I do believe there is a lot to be said for placing ourselves in situations where gratitude is the expectation, or gratitude is just the the overall experience of the community. And I think when we look at our prayer lives on weekday minyan, and you look at our prayer lives on Shabbat, Shabbat, in many ways, is nothing more than an opportunity to spend the day recognizing the blessings that we have.
And so perhaps one of the insights Judaism can offer is that we are meant to be grateful. We are meant to offer gratitude. Diane, to your question about “Does it make a difference if you’re offering gratitude to a person, or does it have to be to God?” I think, building on Peter’s presentation, one of the things that we looked at is what Heschel would call “the ineffable,” right, to recognize that the world that we see is not the only world that exists. And so therefore, if I only express gratitude to the things that I can see and feel and touch and empirically know, then inherently, I’m missing a part of the grand picture.
I think Heschel would say that if you’re offering gratitude for meeting a partner, gratitude for passing an exam, gratitude for having children, gratitude for having a great job, if you say, “I’m going to thank the person who made that connection,” I think you are reserving all of the variables in the world to only the things that you yourself can articulate and see. And I think our tradition wants us to realize there are things greater that we can’t see. And so, just to leave a little bit of room to give thanks for that experience or for that force that makes that happen. Does that help answer your question?
I don’t have scientific data, I don’t have a study, but I think in our tradition it would say you should thank the person, right, because they’re the action-doer, but you should also leave room for the part that we don’t fully understand, that we can’t see, touch or feel, and express gratitude for that as well. And I think that’s one of the things that we specialize in.
Audience Member: The person in front who I can’t even see but I can’t say by name, added the point of “thanking the wife for breakfast, whatever she made, but also thank God for helping me find the wife.” It goes back to the whole initial act that led to the chain that the wife made breakfast.
And so, right, you can go to a lot of Jewish philosophers, who ultimately say “God is responsible for everything, because God was the first mover, and so therefore, anything that happens…” if I’m the one picking up this cup, ultimately God created the world that helped produce that cup. God produced my great-great-great-great-
I’ll end with this, and I don’t think I shared this story with those who are gathered here, but if I did, you’ll just get to hear it again. My parents, my dad in particular, [he would say] “everything is meant to be, everything is meant to be.” And so when I was going through the job search four years ago, my mom and my dad both said to me, “Michael, don’t stress so much, what’s meant to be is meant to be.” If you’re supposed to be in Providence, you’ll end up there. If you’re supposed to be somewhere else, you’ll end up there.” And finally – that always rubs me the wrong way. And so I finally said to my parents, “Well, if it’s just going to happen, I might as well not even apply, and they’ll just call me and say ‘Here’s the job,’” right.
And so I think – again, this question. I think it is possible to say two things can be true, right. We can give gratitude to, in my case, the search process that enabled me to be here, and the people on the search committee, and the research I did, right. We can thank all of that. And I can also say I’m thankful that it also worked out – thank you. And I can also be thankful that it all worked out the way it did. And there are variables – I can’t thank every single person who brought me here to this moment, but I can thank the world that exists that enabled me to reach this moment and in some ways, that is the shehecheyanu.