We’ve all heard an awesome joke or idea we couldn’t wait to tell over, but how often are we jumping at the opportunity to give credit where it is due? Often times, it’s much more tempting to sidestep the reference and let everyone think that we’re the brilliant ones. Our egos work hard to thwart our humility, to make it difficult to apologize to those we’ve hurt, to admit to being wrong, to say perhaps thank you to those who have helped us. The discomfort stems from our desire to feel independent and the focus we put on individual accomplishment.
I think that the occasional discomfort we feel from receiving can be healthy. We’re lying to ourselves if we think we are the sole drivers of our success. Aristotle puts it point-blank, “Anyone who is so self-sufficient…and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Enough said. We need each other, whether we like it or not.
It’s comforting to know that we Americans have done well to show our gratitude. Our calendars are dotted with many days of thanks, whether it be Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Mother’s Day, or the day to love it all—Thanksgiving.
But as American Jews this list is far from exhaustive. Jewish tradition holds that a name carries within it the essence of an individual, the quality a person is meant to aspire to. Jews, Yehudim (in Hebrew), are named after the tribe of Yehudah (Judah), whose name is rooted in the Hebrew word to “thank” or “praise.”
With such roots, it comes as no coincidence that Judaism has a blessing for practically everything. Ate a sandwich? We have a blessing for that. Opened your eyes this morning? There’s a blessing for that, too. Successful bathroom run? Be grateful that your body is working properly! Judaism holds that there is absolutely nothing to be taken for granted—big or small, common or miraculous, seemingly good or seemingly bad. Every day is supposed to be Thanksgiving.
Of all the daily reminders to be grateful, however, there is one commandment in the Torah that especially exemplifies the Jewish perspective on thankfulness—the mitzvah (commandment) of Bikkurim, the annual harvest offering. During the Temple era, this mitzvah required farmers to bring their first harvested fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and to recite a passage thanking G-d for the land and for the bounty. There is an ancient commentary that goes so far as to say that the entire world was created so that the Jewish people could fulfill this mitzvah (Genesis Rabbah 1:4).
Bold as such a statement may be, it is beautifully fitting. The mitzvah stresses the point that being grateful isn’t something to be taken lightly. Sure, Israel is our land, but only on the condition that we continue to acknowledge the immense blessing that it is. Unfortunately for us, as put by philosopher Eric Hoffer, “the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” Being grateful just isn’t in the school curriculum. Manners, maybe. But gratitude?
During my first trip to Israel a few years ago, I was blown away by a community that excels in the pursuit of developing gratitude. The Orthodox Jews I interacted with could not get through a conversation without a “Thank G-d this” or a “Thank G-d that.” And to be completely honest, at first I found it very uncomfortable and even a bit annoying—couldn’t we just get through a normal conversation without all these religious declarations?
Four months into my trip, thank G-d, I learned better. Yes, these people were ultra-obsessed with the concept of gratitude. And not just for the good things—for all the boring details, for the ordinary daily events, even for the occasional curve-ball that caught them off guard. They were thankful for it all because for them, it wasn’t just about being religious. It was about developing a sensitivity for appreciating life.
There was a famous story that I heard at a Shabbat table during my stay in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was about Rabbi Shimon Schwab, a communal leader in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, who was crippled during the last ten years of his life. The story goes that despite the difficult years before his passing, he was known to have always maintained his serene smile and appreciation for life. When asked how he never complained since the loss of his legs, Rabbi Schwab answered, “If someone gave you a gift of a million dollars, and seventy years later he asked for a hundred dollars back…would you feel resentful? Or bitter? Of course not. Because there were so many investments you were able to make with such a gift, so many amazing experiences you were blessed to have. Of course you’re happy to give a hundred dollars back.” He continued, “That’s the way I look at my legs — in the context of my life.”
Sometimes the greatest truths in life are the simple ones we already know, but have somehow forgotten along the way. A little reminder never hurts. As Rabbi Jonathon Rietti of the Jewish Inspiration organization says, “If there’s a today, there’s something good to be found in it.” Let’s hope we choose to find it.