When we arrived in the United States in 1947 my parents rented a small, dilapidated basement apartment in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. We had been in our new residence no more than a few weeks when I suddenly fell ill. It was one of those common childhood diseases but I was running a very high fever and my parents didn’t know where to find a doctor.
An angel of mercy, one of our neighbors, appeared at our door. She called her doctor and asked him to make a house call. She took care of the bill and in every way proved to be a precious, supportive friend. My parents never allowed me to forget that kindness. Every Erev Shabbos, when my mother baked delicious challahs and cakes, there would be a package for this neighbor ready for me to deliver. Years later when I got married, she was seated in a place of honor at my wedding.
In retrospect one might argue that our neighbor didn’t do anything remarkable. A family of Holocaust survivors arrives from Europe, broken and destitute. Their little girl falls ill and they don’t know where to turn. You have to have a heart of stone not to help. But my father taught us never to take any act of kindness lightly. Gratitude is one of the pillars on which our faith if based.
From the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we go to sleep at night we are called on to declare praise and offer thanks to G-d. Our first words must be a proclamation of appreciation to the Almighty for having returned our souls and renewing our contract. No aspect of life is to be taken for granted – a glass of water, a tree in bloom, a rainbow in the sky – all are acknowledged with a blessing to G-d.
We do this because G-d commanded us to, but the benefits for our lives are infinite. Through this process we learn to see good in all the things most people take for granted. In our morning prayers we delineate all the miracles that at first glance appear to be natural but in essence are the greatest gift from G-d, and we thank Him for each and every one of them.
The ability to open our eyes, move our limbs, eliminate waste, etc., are all gifts from the Almighty. Admittedly, those who are not familiar with the Torah way of life might smile or even laugh at this, but can there be a greater blessing than a body that is functioning well? Too many of us come to this realization only after we lose it – and then it is too late.
The Torah teaches that one of the reasons our suffering in exile was decreed was that we did not rejoice in all the good that G-d had granted us (Deuteronomy 28:47). At first glance it might be difficult to understand why we would be so self-destructive and not take pleasure in the many gifts of life, but by nature humans are malcontents. No sooner do they acquire something than they want something more. “He who has one hundred desires two hundred” is a teaching of our wise sages.
The Torah therefore prescribed for us a way of life in which we must be constantly focused on the blessings that are part and parcel of everyday living. The “what have you done for me lately” attitude simply doesn’t exist in Torah vocabulary. Any favor rendered, no matter how long ago, must be remembered and acknowledged.
This concept of gratitude is probably the most important lesson a human being can internalize, for once mastered it guarantees happiness and a meaningful, joy-filled life. People run here and there, dabbling in every available therapeutic program, but they fail to understand that happiness is waiting for them right in their own minds and hearts. They need only acquire the attribute of gratitude and learn to thank G-d for the many blessings of life.
“Thank you” – or many of us those two little words are very difficult to articulate. This may appear paradoxical, but even though gratitude would render us much happier people, we fight it.
Why do we fight it?
Our sages give us insight. In Hebrew the word modeh, thank you, also means “to admit.” In essence, saying “thank you” is an admission that we are in need, that we are vulnerable, that we cannot do it alone – and this is something we do not like to concede.
We hate feeling beholden, especially if the favor extended to us is significant. Therefore the greater the kindness, the closer our relationship, the deeper is our reluctance to reveal our weakness by saying those two little words.
People who have no problem saying “thank you” to a waiter or a salesperson or a doorman have enormous difficulty saying those very same words to those who are nearest and dearest tot them – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, teachers and rabbis and rebbetzins. To say “thank you” to them would be an admission that they grew and became wiser because of what these people did for them.
This inability to express gratitude has many ramifications and is perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many bitter people. Those who cannot acknowledge kindness always find something to grumble about, to criticize. They make miserable marriage partners, demanding children, and selfish friends. They are convinced that everything is coming to them, that they are entitled to all the goodies in life simply because they are alive. No matter how much they are indulged, they are never satisfied. They just keep taking without feeling a need to give back.
“Who is rich?” our sages ask. “He who is content with his lot.” How can you learn contentment? By mastering the art of gratitude. And how can you master the art of gratitude? Start with little things and slowly build up.
By taking a few moments each day to focus on G-d’s gifts by thanking Him for His many kindnesses through blessings and prayers – and by saying “thank you” to those who are nearest and dearest to us – we can acquire the attribute of gratitude. Even if at first our words are said by rote, the very fact that we say them will condition us to express appreciation, and that in itself is significant. One day we will wake up and discover that what started as mere habit has taken on real meaning and become part of our character.
About two years after my husband passed away I decided to move so that I could live closer to my children and grandchildren. You can imagine how difficult such a change was for me. There were so many friendships, so many associations. For thirty-two years my husband had been the spiritual leader of his congregation and it was not simple to pack that up and put it in a box.
In all our years of marriage my husband and I never exchanged a harsh word. There was only one thing concerning which we had conflicts – his papers. He was a collector. Nothing was ever discarded, and his papers with voluminous notations were scattered all over the house.
My children came to help me, and as we organized the papers we felt as though we were carrying on a conversation with him. Every notation was a message, and perhaps the most meaningful was a sentence he had written in his beautiful, bold handwriting: “The two most important words to remember – ‘Thank You.’ ”