Close to 20 years ago, in response to criticism that psychology focused too much on disorders and diagnosis, Dr. Martin Seligman began to develop the field of positive psychology. The goal was to reinvigorate psychology by focusing on strategies that would help people flourish. One of his basic theories was that if we focus on using and developing character strengths and virtues, we will be happier people.
Seligman and his colleagues identified 24 character strengths, and conducted research to better determine the details and nuances of how they could be developed. Of the 24 strengths, gratitude has been the most consistently and robustly associated with happiness and a life well-lived.
Gratitude permeates all areas of Jewish life and serves as the basis of many tefillos, mitzvos, and holidays. Chanukah serves as a perfect illustrative paradigm. In formulating the essential elements of the holiday, the Gemara states that they are days of Hallel and hoda’ah – singing praise and giving thanks. Rashi comments that giving thanks refers to the fact that we say Al Hanissim in davening and bentching.
Yet, when codifying the laws of Chanukah in his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam – instead of writing that they are days of praise and gratitude – writes that they are days of simcha and hallel (happiness and praise). Why replace the word “gratitude” for “happiness”? Perhaps Rambam is alluding to the fact that gratitude and happiness are integrally related. By expressing gratitude, I am at the same time experiencing happiness.
Lighting the menorah is itself a symbolic expression of gratitude. Addressing the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Mishkan and the story of the leaders of the tribes dedicating materials to the Mishkan, Rashi suggests that the former was a response to the latter. Aharon was disappointed that the other leaders had opportunities to serve Hashem through their dedications while he was unable to participate. Hashem therefore comforted Aharon by telling him that he would be able to light the menorah in the Mishkan.
But why is the lighting of the menorah the item that comforts Aharon? Aren’t there a number of special services that only kohanim are privileged to perform?
Based on a midrash, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz suggests that Hashem chose the menorah specifically because it highlights the essential concept of gratitude. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 15:5) asks: If Hashem is the light of the world, why kindle a menorah in front of Him? The midrash answers that although Hashem doesn’t need us to light the menorah for Him, He nevertheless asks us to light it to provide us the opportunity to express our gratitude to Him. The act of lighting the menorah is inherently an expression of gratitude.
When we light the menorah this Chanukah and celebrate and praise Hashem, let us be mindful of the message of gratitude. Let us be thankful for the miracles that took place bayamim hahem – in those days – and the ones that take place bazman hazeh – in our days. By feeling and expressing this gratitude, may we merit true simcha in our lives.