Rosh Chodesh Kislev marks the 10th yahrzeit of my father, Chaim ben Aaron-Yosef Hakohen. Lately, whenever I think of him, the image that pops into my mind is of him sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of “grishek.” I think we would call it porridge – although that term seems to be outdated these days.
To me, there is very little that could be more boring and unappetizing for breakfast – after all, how exciting can grayish, gluey gruel be? I imagine my mother thought it was healthier for him than cereal.
My father, a Holocaust survivor who was quiet to the point of almost being invisible, never uttered a word conveying his opinion about this dish that my mother so frequently prepared for him. Yet I know he savored it. I saw it in his face. No, he didn’t smile as he brought the spoon to his lips every few seconds. He didn’t have to. I knew that just the fact that it was there, that it was his for the taking, was enough to make him relish it.
My father had a deep, unwavering hakarat hatov for the warm albeit bland food in front of him. He who had known excruciating, unrelenting hunger, and had seen fellow Jews slowly starve to death in the labor camp where he was forced to do slave labor for the Nazi war machine – appreciated the gruel he was eating decades later in Canada. He understood that this grishek would nourish him, would give him strength to live another day. And he embraced it.
Although he has been gone for a decade now, the life-enhancing lesson of appreciation that he taught by his silent example has outlived him, for I carry it with me everyday. At least I try to.
I try to accept – if not enjoy- the “grishek” in my life when I would rather have something more appealing. For example, I would love to fly first-class when I travel instead of flying economy – or going on an overnight bus as I often have done to minimize the expense. But from my father, I have learned to appreciate the fact that I can travel in the first place. That I am healthy enough to do so, and that I have a destination to go to – my children and grandchildren. Of course I wish we all lived within walking distance – life would be so much easier – but I appreciate this “greshik” on my plate.
Still, I am only human, and it is a struggle to do so all the time, for I look around and my perception is that others have it better, others have more, and that what I may have found so challenging to attain came so easily to so many.
I know that this ” I want something better” attitude is universal among mankind. We all would like a daily “breakfast” of fresh fruit, and pastries, omelettes and cheeses, fresh rolls, bagels and lox, herring, juices and flavored coffee – and we whine and complain so bitterly when we end up with “grishek”. We gripe, we get angry, we feel deprived and depressed when life gives us “gruel” instead of the “feast” we feel we deserve and are entitled to.
And that is why the requirement to say brachot almost constantly is such a huge gift from Hashem.
I used to wonder why we had to make a bracha for every little thing from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, especially since brachot are not actually blessings in the traditional sense of the word – but rather are expressions of gratitude. I would ask myself why our Creator, the Master of the Universe – seemed to need our constant thanks, our verbal “pats on the back.” After all G-d doesn’t have an ego – why the requirement from us lesser, mortal beings that we sing His praises literally 24/7? Why this seemingly very human need for validation?
I came to realize that it wasn’t Hashem who needs expressions of hakarat hatov. We do. For when we utter a blessing, we become aware – if only for a fleeting moment – of how the mundane, “don’t give it a second thought” aspects of our lives, such as waking up, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, etc. are truly precious.
Each time we make a bracha on what we mindlessly take for granted; each time we express hakarat hatov for what we consider routine, dull and boring- we are reminded – if only for a moment- to embrace and enjoy the “grishek” in our lives.
When we do so, we become that much closer to dispelling the unhappiness, resentfulness and regret that drain us, and step closer to living our lives b’simcha.