The Torah’s View On Gratitude
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida.
Walking in the park, a woman one day stumbled upon a diamond ring. As she reached for her bag to store her precious find, an alms seeking vagabond appeared with an outstretched hand. Yet nothing she offered seemed to satisfy him.
“What do you want,” the woman finally exclaimed. “That’s what I want,” insisted the beggar, pointing to the glimmering little object in her hand.
With little hesitation or ado the woman proceeded to hand the jewel over: “Here,” she said, “It’s all yours.” Unable to thank her enough, the man was soon on his way, but not for long.
A short time later the beggar sought out the woman again. “I wish to return the diamond,” he declared: “It’s not what I want; I seek something far more precious.”
“But what have I to share that is more precious than a diamond,” cried the woman.
“Your giving heart,” said the stranger. “Please teach me the secret behind your giving heart!”
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Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone. (G.B. Stern)
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. (Melody Beattie)
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“Do not all men desire happiness,” Socrates once inquired of his students. “There is no one who does not!” was the unanimous response.
Socrates was clearly on to something. If there is a single denominator that unites humanity, it is the quest for happiness. Despite the myriad ways at which we come at it, happiness is the core objective for which all humans strives.
Still, centuries of pursuit notwithstanding, the search for this coveted attribute endures. A visit to any bookstore or library reveals the copious range of contemporary works that deal with this subject. The list includes titles like, The Science of Happiness, The Art of Happiness, The Pursuit of Happiness, Finding Contentment, A Journey to Contentment, In Quest of Contentment and on it goes. There are actually dozens upon dozens of volumes that wrestle with this pivotal issue.
Our country’s founding fathers have gone as far as to insert the “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence, as an inalienable “right.” They have set man’s freedom to pursue happiness, along with life and liberty, as the Divine cornerstone and destiny of our nation.
To the founders, the ability for citizens to pursue and achieve happiness is the very gauge by which the morality of the state is measured. Yet happiness remains rather obscure and elusive. Elusive perhaps, because of its obscurity. What after all is happiness?
Some people confuse happiness with pleasure; this is obviously a critical error. While pleasure is sure to make us happy, it is a rather shallow and fleeting form of happiness – not entirely different from the pleasure acquired through the use of mind altering chemicals. The moment it wears off, it’s back to reality. To quote Winston Churchill: “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
Unlike that which is implied and espoused within every facet of western culture, happiness is not about finding a way to escape ourselves and reality but rather to make peace with it.
There are after all only so many vacations we can take, so many cruises on which to elope, so many gadgets to divert our attention. Sooner or later the distractions and diversions run out and we are left with our good-old-selves to contend with.
Happiness in the end is to cherish the life that is, not the one that was or might be – it is to face yourself in the mirror and like what you see.
Still, while to achieve happiness we must first be able to define it, knowing what happiness is, is only half the salvation. Obviously, we cannot get to where we want if we don’t know where that is. However, once defined, we must proceed to follow the yellow brick road.
Now that we know that happiness is an existential state of contentment and worth, rather than a never ending series of pleasurable pursuits and fixes, we must embark upon the journey – we must focus our attention on how it is achieved.
This week’s Parsha – Ki Savo – begins with the mitzvah of Bikkurim – the first fruits which are brought as an offering to Jerusalem: “And it shall be when you enter the Land. . . you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from the Land that the Lord, your G-d, gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord, your G-d, will choose. . . Then you shall call out before the Lord. . . And now, behold I have brought the first fruits of the ground that You have given me O Lord! And you shall lay it before the Lord your G-d. . . (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
In the proceeding verse the Torah declares: “You shall rejoice with all the goodness that the Lord, your G-d, has given you and your household – you and the Levite and the proselyte who is in your midst.”
Subsequently, the Torah launches into a discussion regarding the tithe of the Levite, the poor and the helpless: “When you have finished tithing every tithe of your produce in the third year. . . you shall give to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow and they shall eat in your cities and be satisfied. . .”
The assurance of our rejoicing is juxtaposed on one end with the call for appreciation – the need to recognize and express the blessings that G-d bestows upon us. On the other end the promise of joy is connected to the responsibility of sharing. Within this sequence lies the key to a life of joy and contentment.
Happiness begins by focusing on the half full part of the glass, rather than on the part which is empty, as goes the old adage: “I used to cry that I had no shoes, until I met the guy who had no feet.” We must stop looking at the relative or neighbor that drives a nicer car than us and start looking at the neighbor that’s driving the “Clunker” – who would give anything for a car like ours.
If you seek a life of contentment and joy, says the Torah, you must begin by recognizing the blessings in your life and from whence they stem. The produce does not grow on its own. Were it not for G-d’s blessings, neither the farmer nor the land would exist and certainly not the produce.
But it doesn’t end there. Once you get out of your funk – once you realize how much you really have to be thankful for and to whom, you must do something about it.
Connected on the other end of the Divine promise for happiness, are the instructions of the farmer’s obligation to give a percentage of his crops to the poor, the orphans and the widows.
The commentaries explain that true happiness is obtained only when we look after the poor and needy. The act of sharing with others and providing for the less fortunate is what allows us the joy in what we have and the license to possess it.
Everyone has a reason to be grateful and everyone has the ability to express it. If only through a smile or a thank you. Indeed, a small and trivial gesture often strikes deep in the heart of fellow man. There is no such thing, however, as gratitude unexpressed. If it is unexpressed, it is plain old-fashioned ingratitude. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, it only takes one to say “Thank you.”
As stated, it is not just for the sake of the benefactor that one must adopt an attitude of gratitude and appreciation, it is as much so for his very own benefit, for in reality one is truly alive only in those moments when his heart is conscious of the blessings and treasures that permeate his life. If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he isn’t likely to be thankful for what he’s going to get.
Still, we humans have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. While most people would not admit to being ungrateful, it’s because that attitude has become ingrained in their lives to the extent that they don’t even realize it.
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that are very telling. For me man’s resistance to share a good word has recently been reiterated by virtue of a very small and indirect phenomenon. Having been convinced of the extraordinary benefits of the recent technological “Revolution” called “Facebook” – by way of sharing information and uniting and unifying humanity – I’ve joined the ranks of the 50 million active Facebook users.
After a few days of childish excitement, it has become obvious to me that there is nothing magical or intrinsically positive about this powerful medium. While it certainly contains the potential to be used for tremendous virtue, like all things in this lowly world, it also contains the ability to be misused.
To make it short, what I discovered is not 50 million people talking “To” each other but rather 50 million people talking “At” each other, almost like the Tower of Babel magnified a half Million times. Everyone seems to be in output mode posting things that are of interest to them while paying no attention to anyone else’s post.
Most of all I was astounded by how few people will press the “Like” tab on someone’s post, which means they either don’t like it, or they do but can’t bring themselves to take ONE SECOND and indicate their appreciation for the other person’s thoughts and effort to share them. To me this phenomenon is an extremely powerful and revealing commentary on the issue of human appreciation and gratitude. It leaves me believing that we have some ways to go yet.
So, where does this mindset of ingratitude come from? It is vital to understand this before one can overcome this problem. Why is gratitude so hard for us?
On the surface it appears that in today’s fast-paced world, people just lack the time for thankfulness. Work, traffic, family, soccer practice, doctor appointments and countless other demands occupy most of our time and energy. Thanking others is something for which there is just not enough time. So while ours is an age of abundant information, it is also an age of pitifully little appreciation.
But there are deeper reasons for ingratitude. To acknowledge a gift is to admit some form of dependence on the giver. At the very least it evokes a sense of superiority, mild as it may be, on the part of the benefactor. Whether it be conscious or subconscious, our ego resists this superiority. There is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence, or even at the notion of somebody being superior to us in any form even if only in knowledge.
One of the essential lessons of our Parsha is that ingratitude, or the inability to simply “Say a good word,” is ungodly and untruthful, which is never a good thing. Even more so in a second remark regarding ingratitude our Parsha links this characteristic with the onslaught of destructive curses.
It records a sobering warning to those who will act arrogant and ungrateful: “Because you serve not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shall you serve your enemies which the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and He shall put a yoke of iron upon your neck, until He has destroyed you. . . (Deut. 28:47-52).
May we take the lessons of our Parsha and share words of gratitude towards G-d and mankind. This, as stated above will bring true joy and meaning to our own lives and cause unity between man and G-d and man and his fellow man, which will hasten the coming of Moshiach BBA.