By Miriam Steinberg-Egeth
On Sunday afternoon, I taught a class to a group of 8th graders that covered, among other topics, the importance of community, why we perform acts of gimilut chasidim (lovingkindness), and the fact that you are more likely to get in a car accident than you are to get Ebola. Then, driving home from the class, I was in a car accident (thereby hopefully reducing my already infinitesimally small chances of getting Ebola to zero).
I was hit from behind and ended up towards the front of a five car chain reaction, with my car attached to the one behind me. I called 911, I called my husband, I checked in with the other drivers, I watched as one driver was transported by ambulance to the hospital, I thanked whatever G-d meant to me in that particular moment and thanked the universe that I was walking away unharmed.
I’ve since talked to a remarkable number of strangers (mostly tow truck drivers and insurance agents) who have all said some version of this: Cars can be replaced. You’re ok. Your kids weren’t in the car. Nothing else matters.
They’re right of course, and though I wish I didn’t have to go through this experience, I am grateful for the perspective I think I’ve gained as a result. As I stood on the side of the road for hours waiting to be towed, I called Rabbi Helen Plotkin, my friend and mentor and the person who hired me to teach the eighth graders, to tell her how the class had gone.
Instead, I burst into tears and told her about the accident. I asked her if I needed to wait until Shabbat to “bench gomel,” to say the traditional prayer of thanksgiving that is usually said during a Torah service by someone who has gone through a great danger. She said, “Say it now, say it often, may you experience only good things now and always.”
In that spirit, here are three ways to incorporate gratitude into your life and into your family’s life:
- Make it normal.
Please and thank you ought to be part of every family’s vocabulary, ideally knit into the fabric of daily conversation. Even as I teach my two toddlers to say please and thank you (and kvell when “thank you” was among my 18-month old’s first words!), I catch myself giving orders to my kids without modeling the exact language I want to instill in them. If you want your kids to say please and thank you to you, make it easy and obvious for them to copy you.
- Make it special.
Prior to this car accident, I’d only benched gomel twice: once after each time I gave birth. But I’d been part of communities many times that helped others mark safe passage from dangerous situations. I love finding opportunities with my kids to give thanks for special occasions that are happy, too! When my daughter saw the ocean for the first time this summer, we said the blessing for seeing the ocean and also said the shehechianu, the prayer that is said when things happen for the first time (as well as on holidays and other special occasions). By reserving special language for special occasions, we help to mark time and express gratitude in ways that are informed by our Jewish tradition and consistent with our family’s experiences.
- Make it real.
While I believe that Jewish tradition provides individuals and families with a solid framework for expressing our emotions on all kinds of occasions, both difficult and celebratory, I also believe in the power of using our own language. Modeling for our children how to express thanks not only in daily interactions but also in moments of great intensity can be incredibly powerful, and encouraging our children to do the same can open incredible outlets of self-expression and self-awareness.
If I’m going to teach life lessons to my students and to my children, I’m glad that I can model how to live these lessons, too. If I’m going to get in a car accident, I’m glad that I can walk away, unscathed, with more gratitude than I knew was possible.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth is the coordinator of the Center City Kehillah, working to build relationships and programs among the synagogues and Jewish organizations in Center City. Prior to taking on this role in August 2014, she spent 8 years as the director of Hillel’s Jewish Graduate Student Network getting to know and love the Philadelphia Jewish community. She also writes Miriam’s Advice Well for the Jewish Exponent, co-founded Minyan Tikvah, and is a children’s book reviewer. She lives in Center City with her husband and two children and spends a lot of time at the goat in Rittenhouse Square.
Click here for a special “I am thankful for…” coloring sheet to download and print for your child to decorate.