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Gratitude

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: It’s not happy people who are thankful; it’s thankful people who are happy.

"You don't appreciate everything I do for you!"

Lack of gratitude. We've all heard this complaint from a parent, spouse, or co-worker. What's at the root of this problem, and how can we correct it? Why do we so often resist acknowledging the debt of gratitude?

We have a fierce desire for independence. Acknowledging a gift makes us feel indebted – i.e. dependent. So we prefer to "deny" the good that's been done.

This comes at a costly price. While the act of giving forges a two-way connection, failure to acknowledge a gift breaks that connection. This can leave our emotional ecosystem strained and imbalanced, breeding resentment and unhealthy powerplays.

The Talmud tells of a father who carried his son on his shoulders, caring for his every need. Once, as they passed another traveler, the boy called out: "Hey, have you seen my father?"

We have astonishing capacity to take our daily gifts for granted. The faucet opens and water pours out. Insert the key and the car starts. We expect – even demand – that everything work in perfect synch.

Instead of taking things for granted, let’s open our eyes and be mindful of things that others do for us – morning, noon and night.

For starters, let’s examine what is required for you to have your morning cup of coffee. Let's begin with the coffee beans:

Someone in Central America planted coffee seeds.
Someone nurtured the tree for years until it bore fruit.
Someone picked the cherry beans individually by hand then spread them to dry.
Someone transported the beans to a processing plant, to be sorted, graded, roasted, ground, taste-tested, and packed.
An entire shipping industry – requiring required hundreds of people – brings the coffee to a warehouse in the United States, where it is trucked (thanks to highway workers) to regional distribution centers, before finally arriving in the grocery store where dozens of people ensure the coffee is unpacked, stocked and (finally!) sold into my possession.
Then there's the entire infrastructure to provide water for the coffee, and an entire dairy industry to provide milk for the coffee. Plus the cup, spoon, table, chair, coffee jars and kitchen appliance to boil the water.

Gratitude is all about paying attention to details. Don’t take them for granted. Start a "gratitude journal," recording the daily gifts we commonly overlook: A friendly smile, a caring thought, a warm touch. Spend a few minutes each day going over specific blessings you received today.

The key is to constantly prod yourself: "What am I grateful for right now?"

God's Gifts

Our biggest debt of gratitude is to God Who constantly showers us with the gifts of food, air, teeth, talent, resources. Every breath. Life itself.

As receivers of this ultimate good, what tool can help us achieve a constant state of awareness and appreciation?

Judaism's answer is to recite 100 blessings a day. The morning blessings thank God for eyesight, mobility, and consciousness. We recite blessings before and after partaking of food. After the bathroom as well, we thank God for our wondrously functioning human body.

In every way, we are completely dependent on God. These ubiquitous "thank you's" connect us with God and builds our personal relationship with Him.

Not surprisingly, we often are most ungrateful to those who've done the most for us.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam eats from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. When questioned by God, Adam can choose the path of correction (teshuva) by taking responsibility for his mistake and committing to the solution (tikun).

Instead, Adam declares: "The woman that You gave me, gave me the fruit and I ate." (Genesis 3:12)

Adam compounds his initial mistake by refusing to accept responsibility, pointing an accusative finger at his wife: "She gave me the fruit!"

Even worse, Adam displays the height of ingratitude to God, who benevolently brought Adam his soulmate. Adam now blames God for "the woman that you gave me!"

In his desire for independence, Adam injected an unproductive desire that we struggle with till today.

Unlimited Gratitude

The Talmud derives an insight into gratitude from the biblical plagues in Egypt. Not Moses, but rather his brother Aaron, is assigned to turn the Nile River into blood. Since the river had protected Moses as an infant, it was inappropriate for him to initiate a plague against it.

If there is precedent for expressing gratitude to inanimate objects, all the more are we grateful to people who choose to help out of the goodness of their heart.

Did a friend set you straight on something? Your brother saved you from doing something stupid? An employer gave you good advice? Thank them!

The best place to start is with your parents. Make a list of all the gifts they've given you, both materially and ethically – your sense of honesty, discipline, desire for truth, kindness. And most importantly, the gift of life.

"Gratitude lists" are especially effective in marriage. Articulating everything you appreciate about one another cements the foundation of a great relationship.

Indeed, gratitude is the essence of what it means to be a Jew. The word "Judaism" (Yahadut) derives from the name Yehuda, meaning "to give thanks" (Genesis 29:35).

A healthy sense of gratitude is the single biggest predictor of a good life. As the saying goes: It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.