Latest update: April 22nd, 2013
As I’ve noted in recent weeks, appreciation is a lost concept in our society. Even when we are blessed by the many kindnesses of G-d, we tend to take them for granted and delude ourselves into thinking we are responsible for them all. In vain did our Torah warn us not to fall into the trap of “my strength and the power of my own hand accomplished this.”
But while we are quick to take credit for our successes, we are even quicker to blame G-d for our failures, our sufferings, our illnesses. “Where is G-d?” we cry. “How could He do this to us?” The hypocrisy of this never occurs to us.
I feel privileged to share with you my beloved husband’s attitude during the most painful and trying moments of his terminal illness. I recall when my husband had his first surgical procedure at New York University Hospital. That he constantly thanked his doctors and nurses goes without saying. Even in the recovery room, while still heavily sedated, he never forgot this imperative.
I was standing outside the recovery room anxiously waiting to be admitted to see him when Mrs. L passed by.
“Rebbetzin, what are you doing here?” she asked. “Who is sick?”
“My husband just underwent surgery,” I told her.
“Is he in recovery yet?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. She must have felt my pain and fears because she immediately said, “Come, I’ll take you in to see him.”
Mrs. L is in charge of bikur cholim in many New York hospitals. The Talmud teaches that visiting the sick is a precept that is so important that while reward for its performance is given in this world, the principal remains intact in the world to come. From time immemorial Jewish communities have had bikur cholim societies dedicated to helping patients and assisting their family members. Mrs. L and her staff of volunteers bring homemade lunches and dinners to patients, help those who have financial difficulties, and in general try to make the ordeal of illness a bit more tolerable and dignified.
“Come,” she said to me now in her effervescent manner. “Let’s put on surgical gowns and we’ll go in to see the rabbi.” And with that, she pressed the buzzer.
When the nurse came to the door, Mrs. L explained that we were there to see Rabbi Jungreis, and though it was obvious from the nurse’s expression that she didn’t approve, she escorted us to my husband’s bedside. Mrs. L commanded respect in the hospital.
My husband appeared to be sleeping, but he must have sensed our presence because he opened his eyes and when he saw us his face immediately lit up with his beautiful smile.
Mrs. L walked away to give us some privacy.
“Call her back,” my husband whispered. “I have to thank her for bringing you in.”
“I thanked her already,” I assured him.
“But I didn’t,” he responded.
Not only did he thank her, but he mustered his strength to bless her as well.
In his final days of illness at Memorial Sloan Kettering, my husband desperately wanted to breathe some fresh air, to feel the wind on his face, to see the skies and the birds flying by. But for the patients’ protection the windows at the hospital could not be opened, so we asked permission to wheel him out to the street for a few minutes. It was an especially cold, snowy January day, but we were determined to grant my husband’s wish. I brought his long heavy coat, a sweater and a hat, and when the nurse dressed him I had to turn away because I couldn’t hold back my tears. He had lost so much weight, his hat and coat just hung on him.
Slowly my sons wheeled him to the front entrance of the hospital. It looked as if it was going to start to snow again but to my husband the sky was beautiful. Gratefully he breathed in the cold air and thanked us profusely for having made it possible for him to see G-d’s wondrous world one more time.
Saying “thank you” came naturally to my husband, but for many of us these 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.
To develop a heightened sense of appreciation, you might try to keep in your mind’s eye the image of my husband sitting in a wheelchair in front of Sloan Kettering on a cold and overcast day in January thanking G-d for the wondrous sky. My husband’s appreciation of nature had nothing to do with illness. He always took great pleasure in contemplating G-d’s creations and he taught his family to do the same. I remember one of our granddaughters (five years old at the time) saying upon visiting a nature preserve, “I’m so glad Hashem gave me eyes so I can see all these beautiful things.”
Why is it that more people do not share this joy of gazing at the sky and seeing G-d’s beautiful world? One of the reasons may be that many people like to have something that is exclusively theirs; if everyone else has it, they just can’t derive pleasure from it. If you truly love people, however, if you are truly committed to them, your pleasure will intensify in the knowledge that they too are benefiting from that which you appreciate. Even as parents are happiest when they can share with their children, the committed individual will find happiness in the gifts that can be shared with others.
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 might 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 a 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. It was so clear, so obvious.
At last I came across one sheet on which he had written, in his beautiful, bold handwriting: “The two most important words to remember, ‘Thank You.’ ”
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