My saintly father, HaRav HaGoan HaTzaddik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, taught me that before I address an audience I should ask myself, “What will the people take home from my message? What am I giving? Will it enhance their lives? Will it bring the individual closer to Hashem? Will it be a life-altering experience?”
To paraphrase these questions and apply them to the Pesach holiday we just celebrated, let us ask ourselves, “What did we take home from the sedarim, from this awesome Yom Tov?” I’m not referring to resolutions of going on a diet. Actually, I guess I am speaking about a diet – a diet that can nourish our souls rather than our bodies. When I say “diet” I’m not referring to just any food; for diets to be effective they must include all kinds of nutrients that keep one healthy and strong.
The Haggadah has many nutritious ingredients and if we desire a healthy changeover it’s best to include all the specifications. Obviously in the limited space of this column we cannot explore the beneficial effects of each ingredient. There is, however, one nutrient that resurfaces throughout the Haggadah: HaKoras HaTov – gratitude, appreciation.
In my previous column I focused on the beneficial effects of gratitude, of finding happiness in what G-d has given us and not obsessing about what our neighbors have. What I will share with you now is not vacuous pontification but what I lived and experienced.
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 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 be 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 the myriad things that 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.