September 30, 1999
The Power of Gratitude
Parashat Shemini Atzeret (Deuteronomy 33:1 -- 34:12)
Three months ago, at age 19, my daughter made a decision that has changed her life forever. All of us make them, although often we have no idea at the time just how profoundly we will be changed.
For me, it happened at age 20, right before my junior year of college, when I suddenly decided that it would be fun to spend the year studying and living in another country.
I wanted to live in Paris, but there was one small kink in my plan -- my French was so bad that I couldn't get in to the program. A bit late, I realized that I should have paid attention all those years in French class.
Then, in the midst of my depression about being rejected by the program, they asked if I was interested in going to England or one of the countries where you didn't have to speak the language in advance. The options were Japan or Israel; I jumped at the chance.
The rabbis of the Talmud say, "A person is led by the way he wishes to follow." That was me -- being led to a decision born out of rejection, a decision that was to set the path of my entire life work.
By the time I returned from that year in Jerusalem, I was applying to rabbinical school. I have been studying and immersing myself in the love of Jewish civilization ever since. I also had the opportunity to visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza, and was so appalled by the squalor and inhumanity of it all that I have been working in my own small ways to correct the injustices and indignities of the world ever since.
It was that kind of life-transforming experience that my daughter Gable had last July. She had heard Judith Jenya speaking at Kehillat Israel one Friday evening about Global Children's Organization. Every summer for three weeks, Jenya brings war-traumatized youngsters from Croatia, Bosnia and other Balkan countries to the Croatian island of Badija in the Adriatic and gives them the opportunity to regain a glimpse of their childhood. They learn to laugh and play with each other, whether Serb, Croatian, Muslim or Christian.
Gable heard the story, saw the pictures and volunteered. She came back from Croatia a different person. The five 8-year-olds for whom she was a counselor have become part of her extended family. One of them, Mirza, was born with a severely deformed ear, and since returning, Gable has started a campaign to find the best doctor in the world to repair his ear. She is also raising money to help other children and families -- whom she met at a Kosovar refugee camp in Sarajevo -- to be able to return to their homes in Yugoslavia.
For the past few years, Gable has worked as a model and an actress (so far, mostly doing commercials), but after seeing how the refugees lived in the camps, and becoming friends with many of their children, she gave up her apartment in Hollywood and moved back in with us. She couldn't stand the extravagance and materialism that stared her in the face every day. She is now on a campaign to send herself back to the Balkans with Judith this November to create more programs for the children of war.
What does this have to do with Shemini Atzeret? This is the first year that my 19-year-old has truly experienced the power of gratitude for the everyday miracles of her life. She cherishes each day with those she loves. She gives thanks for her life each morning and for all the blessings that surround her.
That is the spiritual lesson of this festival. My heart tells me that if more of us could wake up each morning filled with the profound prayers of gratitude that Gable now feels, we would all live in a transformed world.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.