In the world of self-help and pop psychology, keeping a gratitude journal is often touted as the panacea of all ills. We’ve heard it so many times before that the suggestion can elicit an eyeroll. Unless you’ve in fact done the work and kept a gratitude journal. Then you’d know its transformative effects.
In her book, Gratitude with Grace: An Inspirational and Practical Approach to Living Life as a Gift, Sarah S. Berkovits does more than suggest keeping a gratitude journal (which she does by example in her chapter “Glimpses into My Journal”). It comprehensively explores the power of gratitude via real-life stories, the latest research in the science of happiness, and guided imagery exercises. Berkovits moves beyond the gratitude cliches we’ve all heard, and provides insight, knowledge and practices that can only come from someone who has herself been transformed by the deeper understandings of gratitude. In the author’s words, “Consider it your companion on a journey that will deepen your capacity for love, joy and happiness, and strengthen your connection to G-d.”
The author approaches the topic of gratitude from a very personal perspective. Berkovits was always interested in gratitude. As a psychologist for the New York City Department of Education and as a teacher in schools in England, Israel and America, she’d often ask her students what they’re grateful for. The chapter titled “Raising Grateful Children” documents the beautiful responses students shared—after she pushed them to go deeper—both in writing and via drawings. There is something so sincere about the drawings of young children, and seeing their gratitude for their parents, their siblings and their material blessings expressed in this medium was heartening and thought-provoking.
Gratitude began to play an even more profound role in Berkovits’s life after two back-to-back accidents: first, a fall on the ice resulting in a broken hip and wrist and then, ten months later, being struck by an SUV while walking home after a Friday night meal. Here is her reflection:
Later, I was informed that such an event had happened to a gentleman who was struck down on a nearby street; he was killed not by the first car that hit him, but the second. While deeply sorry for his misfortune, I felt so much gratitude that this had not happened to me. I kept asking myself, Why did G-d give me extra years? What am I supposed to do with them?
And then one day the answer came: You need to write a book on gratitude, to share your experiences, your thoughts, and your research findings with your community as a way of expressing your hakaras hatov to Hashem (gratitude to G-d) and to all the people who were there for you.
While we were not religious at the time, and the bedtime Shema did not accompany my personal prayer, my mother understood how important it is to raise her daughter with a relationship to her Creator and an attitude of gratitude.
Berkovits clearly aimed to write this book with various approaches in mind: personal, spiritual and psychological. She weaves them all together in each chapter, supporting her goal to inform and inspire. The uniqueness of Gratitude with Grace is its diverse offerings of secular and Jewish wisdom. Berkovits generously quotes secular authors, therapists and philosophers alongside musar teachers and Talmudic scholars, partnering academic sources with her insights, observations, stories and experiences. Topics—ranging from the what and why of gratitude to gratitude in adversity—are addressed with breadth and skill, providing a thorough and satisfying read.
The end of each chapter concludes with gratitude practices that inspire the reader to ponder how significantly life could be improved if he or she would implement just one or two. For example, pick one person each week or month and write a letter expressing your gratitude for his or her help. Create a collage with magazine clippings of things you are grateful for and keep it in a prominent place where you will see it regularly. Try to really focus on the words of Modeh Ani each morning. Keep a small stone or crystal in your pocket, and when touching it, think of someone you’ve benefited from.
One of Berkovits’s gratitude practices, which she models in the second appendix, is a personal prayer of thanksgiving to be incorporated as a daily ritual. Her prayer develops the following statements: Thank You for always being with me. Thank You for my periodic difficulties. Thank You for the wonderful life You have given me. Thank You for always listening to my prayers.
While the book is chock full of tips, tools and new ideas, I found this prayer of gratitude at the conclusion of the book to be most personally meaningful. As a child, my mother taught me a personal prayer to say to G-d every night before bed. While we were not religious at the time, and the bedtime Shema did not accompany my personal prayer, my mother understood how important it is to raise her daughter with a relationship to her Creator and an attitude of gratitude. My prayer was composed of an acknowledgement of G-d, a list of things I was grateful to Him for giving me, and a request for the things I wanted. Indeed, the very components of prayer. I continued to say this little prayer into teenagerhood. More than anything, it molded my identity as a recipient of the goodness of my Creator.
Reading someone else’s personal, heartfelt prayer to her Creator reminded me of the power and transformative impact of personal prayer coupled with gratitude. I was surprised to read this line, which I remember saying in some similar iteration as a child: “Thank You Hashem for all the things that I do have, and thank You Hashem even for the things I don’t have.”
Gratitude with Grace will benefit anyone who is interested in discovering a deeper, Torah-based approach to gratitude. And it will change the reader who is serious about putting even a few of the myriad recommendations and exercises into practice.
Alexandra Fleksher is an educator, speaker, writer, co-host of the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast, and creative director of the Faces of Orthodoxy social media account. She and her family live in University Heights, Ohio.