Each week we are on a treasure hunt, searching for images and concepts buried within the Words of the Torah which can help us to develop into the person we were created to be.
This week the concept that spoke to me the loudest was that of gratitude. Rashi cites the midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 9:10) which explains that Moshe was prevented from initiating the plague of blood because the waters of the Nile had protected him when he was cast into the Nile as an infant. It would, therefore, not have been proper for Moshe to smite the water, and Aharon was chosen to initiate the plague instead.
“And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘say to Aharon: take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt – its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water – that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” (Sh’mot 7:19)
We should show gratitude to anyone or anything that has benefited us, even if they did so unintentionally. We are definitely required to show gratitude to people who have shown us kindnesses and to Hashem.
“A psalm for praise. Raise a shout for Hashem, all the earth; worship Hashem in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy. Acknowledge that Hashem is Hashem; He made us and we are His, His people, the flock He tends. Enter His gates with praise, His courts with acclamation. Praise Him! Bless His name! For Hashem is good ; His steadfast love is eternal; His faithfulness is for all generations.” (Tehillim 100)
Hakarat Ha’Tov, literally, “recognizing the good”, is the Hebrew term we translate as gratitude. The good is already good. The practice of gratitude is about our being aware of the good that is already there. When we begin to develop gratitude, we will discover just how much good we have and how much we have to be grateful for. I know each of you reading this have deficiencies, we all do, but when we focus only on the deficiencies in our lives, and not on the good that counterbalances, we deny ourselves the joy that gratitude brings. Unfortunately, human nature is to take things for granted until they are taken away from us. For example, we take our healthy, amazing body for granted until, G-d forbid, something goes wrong, and we find ourselves sick or in pain. And even then, we might have pain in one area, but fail to recognize the other areas that are pain free.
If you’ve broken a string on your ukulele, but you still have three more, you have something to be grateful for.
“Ben Zoma states, ‘who is wise? He who learns from all people. Who is strong? He who controls his passions. Who is rich? He who rejoices in his own lot. Who is honorable? He who honors others.’” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
When we learn to rejoice in our lot, we will be able to find joy in the things we otherwise overlook. A grateful person is a happy person. Gratitude cannot coexist with arrogance, resentment and selfishness.
“Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.” (Rebbe Nachman)
Our Torah portion teaches us an important lesson about gratitude and not taking life for granted. Like Moshe showing gratitude to the Nile, we too can even show gratitude to inanimate objects. When was the last time you felt gratitude for your home, your shoes, your vehicle, the flowers and tress that bloom, the sun that warms your face and your soul, your toothbrush, your shower………..ok, you get the point. But, lets face it, our lives would be less fulfilling without these things, and we need to develop an attitude of gratitude for the many things that bless our lives each day. How? By treating them with respect and saying a blessing to the One who ultimately provided them. And how much more so, should we show gratitude to the people who have blessed us with their help, time, talents or friendship.
Judaism and gratitude go hand-in-hand. When Leah named her fourth son “Yehuda” she explained the meaning of the name, which is “I am grateful”. The name “Jew” derives from “Yehudi”, the people of “Yehuda”. The Siddur is replete with blessings for everything, helping us to focus on and appreciate even the most mundane activities of life. Things that most of the world takes for granted. Gratitude is built into every aspect of Jewish life. Yet, gratitude doesn’t come easily to us. It takes time and effort to develop. And many people find thanking G-d much easier than thanking another human being.
The following is a word-for-word quote from an amazing book, I highly recommend (and from which I have liberally based much of the above on), entitled “Everyday Holiness – The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar” by Alan Morinis.
“In the Mussar classic “Duties of the Heart”, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda tells us that there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t been given gifts, if only the gifts of life and hope, but we tend to suffer a kind of blindness that keeps us from seeing and appreciating what we have. He identifies three reasons why we fail to see the abundance in our lives for which we ought to be grateful, and it’s worth paying attention to what he says because his insights are as true for us today as they were nearly one thousand years ago when he wrote them. As you read these points, see if you can identify how these factors play out in your own life and keep you from the gratitude that is the soul’s satisfaction.
First, he says we tend not to feel appreciative because we are too absorbed in worldly things and in the enjoyment of them. He points out that physical pleasures can never be fully gratified and so we pursue them endlessly, which keeps us from gratitude for what we have.
Second, we are so used to our gifts that we don’t even really see them anymore. We have grown so accustomed to them that they appear to us as typical, permanent, unremarkable features of our lives. Because we just take them for granted, we don’t see all the good that is in our lives, for which we really could and should be grateful.
And third, we are so focused on the travails and afflictions we suffer in this world that we forget that both our very being and all we own are among the good things that have been gifted to us.
The result of this foolishness, Rabbi ibn Pakuda concludes, is that ‘many good things are left unenjoyed, and the happiness to be had from them becomes tainted either because people do not recognize the good in it, or they do not realize its value.’”
We need to become experts in gratitude. Too often we are only experts in wanting more and complaining.
The feeling of being rich, like the feeling of happiness is relative to our expectations. If we are happy with and accepting of what we have, then we are rich. And no matter how wealthy we are, the desire for more can make us feel poor and deprived. Pursuing wealth can too easily become all-consuming, and usually deprives the one pursuing it of all other pleasures in life. Ask yourself are you sacrificing family, integrity and honesty in the pursuit of wealth? If so, you may be poor, even if you think you are rich.
“For you say, ‘I am rich, and I have grown rich, and I have need of nothing.’ And you do not realize that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” (Hitgalut 3:17)
“If you drink water from a well, do not throw stones at it.” (Bava Kama 92b)
Rabbi Yechezkail Sarna, Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, wrote that the obligation to show gratitude toward a well applies especially to a spiritual well. If you have studied Torah under a certain teacher or if you have studied in a certain yeshiva, appreciate what you have gained. Be careful not to throw verbal stones at the spiritual wells from which you have drunk. (As told by Rabbi Pliskin in “Love your neighbor”). Even if Hashem has led us to a different place or level in our spiritual walk, may we never forget to be grateful for those who have been a part of the journey. Those who have been put on the path along the way, were put there by Hashem to teach us something we needed to learn. As Ben Zoma tells us, we are wise if we learn from everyone. Yes, obviously, sometimes we might learn how not to behave, or what not to believe, but we are still learning important life lessons. How much more should we show gratitude to good, kosher teachers and mentors. And we best do that by implementing the amazing gift of knowledge they have imparted to us. Don’t take the wisdom imparted to you for granted, and remember it didn’t come without a cost to the one imparting it.
I pray that we work diligently at developing a healthy attitude of gratitude, thankful for the things that make our lives better, the people who enrich our lives, and the G-d who gives us life and sustains us each and every day. May we recognize the good, and learn to enjoy the good, and place proper value on all things. In the end, beauty is fleeting, and charm is deceitful, and the things of this world will fade away. May we use our lives to gratefully pursue things of eternal value, recognizing the good that is already there and has been provided along our path!
Be grateful, be blessed and be a blessing,