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Gratitude Redux

Emotional states are everything.

While all animals experience emotions, they are predominantly simple; human capacity for complex thought uniquely impacts the context and depth of how we perceive and experience our emotions. Some emotions, like guilt, can come from our understanding of our role in events in the external world.

One of the highest human emotions is gratitude, which affirms that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits that we have received. Research has shown that gratitude is one of the most powerful predictors of wellbeing, over and above most known factors, including health and wealth. Gratitude is tightly linked to feeling happy, empathetic, energetic, forgiving, hopeful, optimistic, and spiritual while feeling less depressed, envious, and neurotic.

The Mesilas Yesharim teaches that God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart to share the gift of God’s goodness with – humans, created as we are in God’s image and likeness.

It follows that recognizing goodness activates and draws out what’s best in us; gratitude and recognition arguably form the undercurrent of the vast majority of mitzvos, and it might not be a stretch to say perhaps all of Judaism.

The Midrash imagines God walking Adam through Eden. After reveling in how beautiful and wonderful each tree is, God would say that each marvelous one had been designed for human enjoyment. Inasmuch as we can say that God could want anything, God wants humans to enjoy His gifts and recognize and appreciate those blessings.

The first words God says to the Jewish People articulate that God wants to be recognized – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם – and not just for higher-order activities such as Creation, but for a specific and personal intervention in their lives, that God had rescued them from slavery. The next thing God has to say is that God cannot tolerate idolatry, where humans would misattribute God’s work to other, lesser powers. Idolatry betrays and demeans the good that God has done, and ranks among the most egregious sins towards God; idolatry entirely undermines God’s purpose for Creation, that God’s goodness to be appreciated and loved – וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ!

In the agrarian world of the Torah, there used to be an annual national thanksgiving ritual – the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Farmers would tie a string to the first fruits that sprouted. Then, after the harvest, the Mishna describes how the entire country would sing and dance together at a massive street festival in Jerusalem to accompany the farmers dedicating those first fruits at the Beis HaMikdash to express their gratitude for the harvest – and almost everyone was a farmer.

On arrival, the farmers would present their baskets to the attending Kohen and recite some affirmations, including a brief recital of Jewish history. They’d recount how Yakov fled from Lavan, that his family descended to Egypt, and that God rescued the Jewish People and gave them the Land of Israel –  אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי / וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה / וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. The prayer closes with an instruction to the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.

It’s hard to overstate how central our sages saw the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Sifri suggests that the merit of Bikkurim is what entitles the people to the Land of Israel; the Midrash Tanchuma says that the merit of Bikkurim fuels the world’s prayers; and the Midrash teaches that the mitzvah of Bikkurim perpetuates nothing less than the entire universe.

But there’s one part that doesn’t quite fit.

The farmer would work his field manually; weeding, plowing; sowing; pruning; watering, and guarding it. It redeems no less than an entire year’s work when the harvest comes, and ensures food security for the next year!

The farmer has worried for a year, living with anxiety and uncertainty. After the harvest, those troubles are gone; he can sleep easy now, and it might be the one time a year he can undoubtedly pray from a place of love and security, not fear and worry. So it’s a strange thing for the Torah to instruct the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

If this is the happiest anyone will realistically be, why does the Torah need to command joy?

Healthy and well-adjusted humans require a sense of satisfaction and self-worth that comes from hard work and self-sufficiency – בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם. Our sages call unearned benefits the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא / לחם של בושה. When a child begins to individuate from the parent and insists on doing it “all by myself,” we recognize the child undergoing a healthy phase of human development. Eternal childishness and helplessness is a sickness, not a blessing. And after all, self-reliance is the American Dream!

But we can take doing it “all by yourself” too far – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.

So perhaps the challenge for the farmer – and us – isn’t only in celebrating the blessings – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב; it’s that even after taking a bare piece of land and making it fruit all by himself, he has to admit that he didn’t truly do it alone – אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

Gratitude has a fundamental connection and interaction with humility. It grounds us and orients us by recognizing that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all, to God, and so the error of self-sufficiency isn’t just that it’s morally wrong – it’s factually wrong!

As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, מודה doesn’t just mean thanksgiving; it also means to confess. When we thank another, we concede that we needed the assistance of another, admitting our frail weakness and showing our vulnerability. We acknowledge that another has shared gifts with us, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. Genuine gratitude strengthens relationships by helping us recognize and appreciate how we’ve been affirmed and supported by others. But our ego can inhibit us if we don’t get it in check, telling us we did it alone.

Gratitude affirms that self-sufficiency is an illusion, perhaps God’s greatest gift of all. John Rawls sharply observed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be earned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to everything. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things to start with is the more significant gift by far.

By thanking God loudly and in public, we firmly reject the worldview of self-sufficiency or that we did it ourselves – כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה – and perhaps the ritual also helps recalibrate our expectations.

It is natural to be pleased with where you are but to want more still. Healthily expressed, we call it ambition, and unhealthily, we call it greed – יש לו מנה רוצה מאתיים. You’re glad you got something, even though it wasn’t quite what you wanted.

But nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude; the more expectations you have, the less appreciation you will have, and it’s obvious why. If you get what you expected, you will not be particularly grateful for getting it.

Expectations are insidious because although we can superficially express gratitude, what looks like gratitude might actually be entitlement cloaked in religiosity and self-righteousness. It’s a blind spot because you think you’re thankful even though you didn’t get what you wanted! But that’s not joy; it’s the definition of resentment.

Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us not just to appreciate life’s gifts but to repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:

תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל – … Since you did not serve God with joy and good spirit when you had it all… (28:47)

It’s a sentiment the Jewish People expressed uncomfortably often in the wilderness, complaining about lack of food and water, about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians as they were leaving, about the inhabitants of the land they were about to enter, and about the manna and the lack of meat and vegetables.

Moshe warns us how his people lacked gratitude in difficult times and warns them of making the same mistake in good times:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם׃ פֶּן־תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ׃ וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה־לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ יִרְבֶּה׃ וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים׃ – Take care lest you forget Hashem your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Hashem your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (8:11-14)

So perhaps the short history of how the farmers got their land recalibrates our thinking. Our enemies might have slaughtered us; but God has given us our lives and security – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי. We might have been spared death, but we could have been enslaved or subjugated to any number of enemies; yet God has given us our labor – וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה. And on top of safety and freedom, we have material abundance –  וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. With that kind of context, it would be ridiculous to think we somehow had it coming or that we did it by ourselves!

We don’t practice Bikkurim today, and we’re missing out on a vital aspect of Judaism. But we’ve probably all seen the contemporary analog, though – many businesses frame and hang their first dollar of revenue. It’s sentimental, but it’s a powerful symbol, and just like Bikkurim, it is a ritual that captures the moment you are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. By dedicating our first sign of success, the first fruit, the first dollar, we protect ourselves from the hubris that we had it coming or the narcissism that we did it ourselves.

The Hebrew term for practicing gratitude literally means “recognizing the good” – הכרת הטוב; gratitude is recognizing the good that is already yours. The things you lack are still present, and in expressing gratitude, no one is saying you need to ignore what’s missing. But there is no limit to what we don’t have, and if that is where we focus, then our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.

As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains, almost all the mitzvos of the Land of Israel reflect this sentiment in one way or another. By heavily regulating our use of the land, with Shemitta, Yovel, the Omer, Sukka, and the tithes, the Torah guides us that there is only one Landlord, and we are all here to serve – הַכֹּל נָתוּן בְּעֵרָבוֹן, וּמְצוּדָה פְרוּסָה עַל כָּל הַחַיִּים.

The Jewish people are named after Yehuda, a form of the Hebrew word for “thank you” – תודה. We’re not just the people of the book; we could more accurately be called the grateful people, the people of thank you.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, our blessings and prayers are a daily gratitude ritual; from the first words we say in the morning – מודה אני – to everything about life itself: for the human body, the physical world, the earth to stand on, the eyes we see with, and the air we breathe.

The Eliyahu Rabbah notes that the prayer leader repeats the Amidah aloud, and the congregation answers Amen, for all except the Thanksgiving blessing – מודים אנחנו לך. You can delegate plenty to others, but not saying thank you.

While most of us aren’t farmers in the Land of Israel, each of us has a long list of blessings to be thankful for, and although we’re sorely missing a national thanksgiving ritual; we can learn its lesson that there is no such thing as self-made.

If there are any good things or accomplishments in our lives, we didn’t get them by ourselves; we all got plenty of help. 

You need to recognize how blessed and fortunate you are, with no void of resentment for the things you don’t yet have; to be wholeheartedly and wholesomely thankful, decisively abandoning your expectations and entitlement, truly rejoicing with what you have – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.

Let gratitude, joy, and happiness spill over beyond the confines of the religious sphere and into the rest of your life – it will deepen and enrich you. Thank God, and perhaps your spouse a little more; your parents, children, colleagues, clients, and community.

We can’t make it alone, and we’re not supposed to. We need each other; it’s a key design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

As the legendary physicist and science educator Carl Sagan once said, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the entire universe.