15 October 2010
7 Marcheshvan 5771
One of the habits of mind and heart that we try to cultivate in our students is known in Hebrew as “hakarat hatov,” literally translated as “recognizing/acknowledging the good,” otherwise known as gratitude. Why is gratitude so difficult, even unnatural, for us as human beings (and sometimes, it seems, for high school students especially)? Perhaps, it is because there are so many difficult, depressing things happening all around us and in the world, which happen to make sensational news stories. Perhaps, we are inherently self-centered, and gratitude requires a capacity to see beyond ourselves. Perhaps, we just tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. Or, perhaps, we all have so much going on in our lives and inside of us—so many experiences, relationships, and emotions to navigate all the time—that we do not or cannot prioritize the feeling and expression of this particular emotion.
Why is the capacity to feel and express gratitude so important? This is probably best answered by each of us in our own way, but let me suggest that gratitude is core to three different dimensions of our being in the world: our relationships with ourselves (bein adam l’atzmo), our relationships with others (bein adam l’chavero), and our relationships with God (bein adam l’Makom). With ourselves, the capacity to feel gratitude is being able to move beyond our own egos and take ourselves out of the center of our world. When I feel gratitude toward someone or something, it is no longer all about me. With our relationships with others, gratitude helps us not to take other people for granted. For example, stopping to thank a teacher or a maintenance worker for all they contribute to our school reminds us that we live interdependently with others and that they play important roles in our lives. We also strengthen our relationships and our community when we take the time to express appreciation toward one another.
Gratitude is also a fundamental building block of a spiritual life. Gratitude begins with our capacity to feel wonder, to see newness, to be amazed by the world around us, and then shifts to a deep sense of and appreciation for the Source of that which amazes us (which, in religious language, we call “God”).
As I read the Torah portion and watched the world news this week, this theme of gratitude resonated with me. In the opening of Parshat Lech Lecha, God promises Abraham (Abram at the time) that he will “be a blessing” to the world, and, while the meaning of that phrase is not exactly clear, we see a hint of what this might mean later in the parsha. After Abram wins the battle of the four kings and five kings (Genesis 14), King Melchizedik of Shalem greets him with a blessing: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High . . .” (Gen. 14:19) For Melchizedek, Abram and his military victory bear witness not to human greatness but rather to God’s presence in the world, both as Creator and Deliverer. He models a stance of spirituality and gratitude toward what, otherwise, might have been interpreted as “this worldly” matters (war). In doing so, he also introduces the language of bracha (“Blessed be God Most High”), which, in our tradition, is the standard structure for expressing our gratitude toward God.
We also bore witness to an inspiring event this week, as the 33 Chilean miners were rescued from the mine in which they had been trapped for 69 days. To the wonder and amazement of their families and the world, they emerged safe and largely unharmed. It is appropriate and important for us to feel grief and mourning when we witness tragedy and to feel righteous indignation when we witness suffering and injustice. But, it is equally important for us to feel happiness and gratitude when we witness joy, freedom, and moments of redemption in our world. The daughter of one of the miners expressed this beautifully when she said, “My father was reborn today.”
Baruch Hashem (Thank you, God).
Rabbi Marc Baker