Ritual can start small

By on July 9, 2024

This piece is the third and final piece in our blog series on Jewish ritual practice and where it may fit into your life. Curious to talk about any of the ideas here? We’re always available for an in-person or virtual coffee!


A few months ago, I explored the question of how Jewish learning can be a ritual in and of itself—and now, I want to dig into the question of how you can bring ritual, in both small or large ways, into your life.

But first, what even is ritual? Rituals are repeated, deliberate actions imbued with intention and purpose, often taking place at transition or threshold moments in our days or lives. Rituals can take place on different timescales, including:

  • The year cycle, such as those associated with holidays like Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah, or with changing seasons
  • The life cycle, such as b’mitzvah, conversion, funerals, or weddings
  • The rhythms of daily life, such as daily prayer or blessings over food

This is the central question we explored in GatherBay’s inaugural learning cohort—and you can read more about how ritual practice can sustain us in both joyful and challenging times! After connecting with some of our cohort members months later, and hearing about how their ritual practices have continued, we wanted to share some learnings and practical tips for anyone who is considering how ritual might play a role in their life. 

At the end of the first session, each member of the cohort identified a practice we wanted to experiment with over the coming weeks. There are so many ritual possibilities within the Jewish tradition, either in a form that already exists or in a framework that can be adapted to fit our own experiences and needs—and our cohort members chose to try out a wide variety of things! 

Some folks focused on Shabbat practices like setting their phones aside or gathering with friends for a meal, while others explored morning rituals, creating sacred space in their homes, and other aspects of ritual. For my own experiment, it was time to go back to basics. 

Cultivating gratitude

In my time running youth education programs at Kehilla Synagogue, the very first prayer we would teach students is the gratitude prayer, paired with a collective practice of sharing what we were grateful for on that particular day. The exclamations of “pizza!,” “cats!,” “trees!,” “friends!,” and “that earth exists at all, since we’re just one speck in the galaxy in the universe!” were, without fail, a high point of my week.  

While I’m still a member of the Kehilla community, I no longer attend Hebrew school, and so I had fallen out of practice of setting aside deliberate time to identify what I was grateful for. I chose to take this opportunity to return to both the prayer and to the noticing and naming of gratitude. 

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, speaks of being grateful “not for everything, but in every moment.” Similarly, my colleague and teacher Rabbi Dev Noily often frames an invitation to gratitude not as eclipsing what’s hard, but as welcoming in the fullness of what is.

It’s not always easy to be present with that fullness. Cataclysm and loss, both communal and personal, far and near, press in on us. Focusing on gratitude can, at times, feel not just indulgent, but deliberately obfuscating, edging towards a kind of “good vibes only” positivity that turns us away from suffering and away from ourselves.

But a closer look at Modeh ani, our gratitude prayer, reveals something very different.

 Connecting to the bigger picture

מוֹדֶה/דָה/דֶת* אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי ,בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃‎
Modeh/ah/et* ani lefanekha melekh cḥai vekayam sheheḥezarta bi nishmati b’ḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.
I am grateful before You, Source of Life, living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness.

*modah is the feminine verb conjugation, modeh is the masculine, and modet is the nonbinary

We are not grateful in isolation, focusing only on the good. We are grateful before the Source of Life, the boundless mystery, that sense of something bigger than ourselves—whether that’s God, nature, community, music, or any of the myriad “somethings bigger” you might feel connected to. Modeh ani invites us, first and foremost, to be grateful for being, for having woken up to the possibility of a new day with new, yet undiscovered things to be grateful for.

Modeh ani a prayer of re-orientation. It reminds me that when I feel accompanied, I am not only more able to access my gratitude, I’m also more able to move through challenges and show up for those in need. 

It’s a gratitude practice that doesn’t have to feel good or easy all the time. It’s not supposed to make me forget or set aside what’s hard. It’s just asking me to take the time to get right-sized about the miracle of existence and name one thing I’m grateful for—and that is somewhere I know how to start.

What’s your starting point? 

When inviting in a new ritual practice, it can help to consider what quality you’re looking to grow in your life. Are you in need of more mindfulness? Structure? Rest? Resilience? Surrender? There’s a ritual practice—or more than one—that can support each of those intentions, or any other you might have. 

Here are a few steps to get you going:

  • Start small. It’s better to try something bite sized and grow from there than it is to take on an ambitious project that may feel overwhelming or unsustainable. For example, if you’re wanting to try out a gratitude practice, you could name one thing you’re grateful for each day and listen to (or sing!) this setting of Modah Ani by musician Aly Halpert.
  • Get curious. Are there any Jewish practices that sound interesting to you, but you haven’t tried them out yet? Or would like to try doing those practices in a new way? This could be hosting Shabbat dinner, reciting psalms in challenging times, saying the Shema before bed, or many other things. 
  • Ask questions. Could you use some support thinking about how to bring more ritual into your life? That’s one thing our GatherBay team is for! If you want to talk about any of this over coffee/tea, reach out here and we’ll be in touch. 

Wherever your ritual explorations take you, may you find practices that bring increased meaning and connectedness into your life. 

And one more note for our colleagues: Are you a Jewish professional working with your community members on how to integrate ritual into their own lives? You’re also welcome to reach out to talk more about this: rabbi.gray@gatherbay.org


Rabbi Gray Myrseth is GatherBay’s Community Rabbi. Originally from San Francisco, Gray was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School of Newton, MA, and has worked as a rabbi, chaplain, and educator with people of all ages, within Jewish institutions and beyond. When not at work, they can be found making ceramic Judaica, writing and reading poetry, expounding on the wonders of Talmud study, and enthusiastically exchanging podcast recommendations.