A Message of Gratitude

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

Late one night last month, my wife was sharing three things for which she was grateful  - a daily practice we'd begun together. I didn't respond - not entirely unusual; my distractedness is not something for which she is grateful.

I was distracted by an electrical short in an extension cord, shooting sparks onto the carpet. In a moment, we had a full-blown fire in our bedroom.

Three fire engines later, the fire was contained, no one was hurt and aside from the insurance deductible and the inconvenience of living at a hotel for the last month, we emerged unscathed. When we finally arrived at a motel in the wee hours of that first night, we picked up where we had left off: we were grateful that the fire was not worse, that we were awake when it happened, and that no one was hurt.

The fire was the latest in a string of "unfortunate incidents" that have filled a year of near misses. Among them - a bicycle accident in which I broke my hip, leading to surgery and a lengthy convalescence.

As I was recovering, I was struck by how grateful I was - that it was not worse, that I received excellent medical care, that I had good health insurance, that so many family and friends helped out. Though my life was arguably better the day before my accident, I had not been filled with gratitude then - far from it. Noting how each calamity during this year only increased my sense of gratitude, I wondered why it was that my gratefulness increased when things were "bad." Perhaps it was the near-miss quality of these events. Like the man in the story, "It Can Always Be Worse" - who complains that his house is too small until the rabbi advises him to bring a goat, a chicken and a cow into his house - these events highlighted how much worse it could have been and helped me to appreciate what we have, and what had not been lost. Mykavanah (intention) became - to feel gratitude EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE GOING WELL.

Gratitude is a core Jewish value. Our very name (Jew) is derived from the Hebrew word for thanks - we, the Jewish people, are the people of gratitude. But what does this mean?

"Who is wealthy?" asks Pirke Avot. "HaSameach b'chelko - One who is happy with their portion." But is that it? Is contentment with our lot the key to happiness?

In his story Bontsha the Silent, the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz lampoons the extreme humility of diaspora Jewry embodied by the title character whose deepest desire is for nothing more than a hot roll with butter each morning. Observing our gratitude in the face of a series of calamities, some of my friends questioned its authenticity. "It's ok to feel anger about all this," they counseled. Which led me to wonder - can gratitude be a form of denial? Or surrender, accepting what should not be accepted?

Historically, the Jews have not been known for being happy with our portion. From Jacob, wrestling with angels to so many modern Jews in the vanguard of so many social justice and revolutionary movements - acceptance of the status quo is not the dominant image of the Jewish people. We are, as Moses continually reminds us over 40 years of wandering, a troublesome and cranky people.

Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has devoted his career to the subject, defines gratitude as the acknowledgement of having received a gift, recognition of the goodness of the gift and of the fact that the source of the gift is from outside of ourselves. In other words, not a blind acceptance or settling for what is, but the ability to take note of goodness and to understand that it is not an entitlement.

This is consistent with the Jewish definition of gratitude -hakarat hatov(recognizing the good). In the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel elevated this notion to a sense of wonder or, as he called it, radical amazement. "...to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted...To be spiritual," Heschel asserted, "is to be amazed." Gratitude is about being present in order to appreciate the gifts we receive.

In this sense, gratitude becomes not simply the attitude of gratefulness, but a cognitive process - a way of perceiving the world. There is a midrash, a story of two men among the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. They are amidst the entire nation - hundreds of thousands of people - crossing from Egypt to Sinai. In this sea of humanity, they could not see Moses, they could not see the parting of the waters. Their heads down, they only notice that they are traipsing through mud. "We had mud in Egypt, and here we have more mud. What's the difference?" they kvetch. Surrounded by a miracle, they only see mud. "Wonder," Heschel suggests, "is a state of mind in which...nothing is taken for granted."

Who is wealthy? Asks Pirke Avot. Perhaps a richer translation of HaSameach b'chelko would be - one who rejoices in their blessings. If we learn this lesson well, we will indeed be "the people of gratitude."