When each of my sons were in 3rd grade, their classes participated in a 3rd grade school musical just before Thanksgiving. Recently, while attending a workshop with our congregational leaders, I found myself humming the melody and words to one of the catchy tunes: “I’ve got a gratitude attitude“, by Teresa Jennings. I was at the Flourishing Congregations workshop, sponsored by the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The premise of Flourishing Congregations is based on the concept of Appreciative Inquiry, that by asking the right questions and focusing on possibilities rather than problems, a congregational community will be able to see the larger picture and create energy, innovative ideas and solutions.
By asking, “What’s the possibility we see in this situation?” we find that:
what we ask determines what we find;
what we find determines how we talk;
how we talk determines how we imagine together;
how we imagine together determines what we achieve. (Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry , pages 6-7.)
By beginning with the question of “What gives life when our congregation functions at its best?”, we are able to search for the best in people, our congregation and the community around us. Our day was a model for what we can do in our congregations by asking the right questions and using the assets that we already have.
We began the day with Appreciative Inquiry interviews, personal conversations with someone we did not know and asked questions like: Tell me about an experience in your congregation when you felt most alive, most fulfilled, or most enthusiastic about the congregation” or “Tell me about a time when you most deeply felt a sense of belonging in the congregation.” These stories helped us to uncover the positive core of our congregation’s lives and lifted up the potentials and possibilities and reminded us that in every congregation something works very well. Our day continued with “World Cafe”, a large group process where we met in successive rounds of small group conversations that created a “culture of dialogue” and allowed us to brainstorm and share ideas about best practices that work in our congregations and network to find ways we can learn from each other and/or work together in the community. We also spent time in the process of “Asset Mapping”, using post-its and big sheets of paper as we considered what our assets, strengths and resources are and how we can match up unconnected assets to each other to strengthen our congregation and to create new ideas and new possibilities.
Not surprisingly, these resources can work well in congregational life because they focus on hope rather than dwelling on the negative, something that is the essence of what it means to be a community of faith.
Not surprisingly, also, is that in Judaism we have a Hebrew term, hakarat hatov, for this idea of appreciative inquiry, or looking for the positive, or being reminded that something works well. Hakarat hatov literally translates as “Recognizing the good”. In other words, Hakarat Hatov is about Gratitude. Gratitude is about recognizing the good that is already part of our lives; it requires us to think about all of the things that we can be grateful for that we already have. No matter how hard things might seem or what a difficult time we might be going through, there is always something we can find to be grateful for. Hakarat hatov asks us to recognize the good that we already have, to acknowledge that what we have is a gift and to be thankful for it and to give thanks to the One who gave it to us, whether the source of the gift is another person, or the Source of All, God. As Jews we start each day with the Modeh Ani blessing, thanking God for the most important gift of all, the gift of life. The short morning blessings that follow remind us to be grateful for the most basic capacities – to stand, to get dressed, to use the bathroom; all of which are the most fundamental parts of our existence and without which we would be unable to go on and do all of the mitzvot that we have the potential to do in each day.
As we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving this year, may we find an attitude of gratitude, and may we awaken each day with the middah of Hakarat Hatov, consciously recognizing the good in our lives.
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is a member of the Executive Board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.