November 22, 2011
Opinion: Grateful for what?
One of the great human virtues is gratitude. In Jewish tradition, we are encouraged to make at least 100 blessings of gratitude a day. The very first words we say every morning are “I give thanks before you, eternal King, for having restored to me my soul.”
In fact, the idea of gratitude is woven right into the name of our people.
As Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes on Aish.com: “The reason we are known as Jews is because most of us are descended from Judah. Of the 12 children who came from Jacob, 10 of the tribes of Israel were lost, scattered to unknown destinations and no longer identifiable by their heritage. We, who remained, other than the priests and Levites, stem either from the large tribe of Judah or the much smaller one of Benjamin. Since the odds are very great that the survivors of historic diminution by assimilation or persecution are in the majority from Judah, we are called Jews.”
But what is it about the tribe of Judah that helped it survive above the others?
“A number of Jewish commentators believe the secret of Judah’s blessings are implicit in the Hebrew meaning of his name,” Blech writes. “When Leah, his mother, gave birth to him she said, ‘This time I will give thanksgiving unto the Lord; therefore she called his name Judah’ (Genesis 29:35) — from the Hebrew hodah, giving thanks.”
The desire to show gratitude is so ingrained in Jewish tradition that if a Jew lacks this trait, the Talmud says it’s quite possible that that person might not even be Jewish. Of course, the fact that for the past few thousand years most Jews have observed a weekly Thanksgiving ritual, also known as Shabbat, has certainly helped nurture this grateful impulse.
In today’s world, however, there is an enemy of gratitude that lurks all around us, and which our ancestors did not have to brave in the shtetls of Poland and Morocco. That enemy is advertising — around-the-clock commercial assaults that tell us never to be satisfied with what we have. There’s always a better toothpaste, a better car, a better pair of jeans, a better coffee — a better anything — waiting for us, if only we will discard the one we already have.
This points to a dilemma: Gratitude is about being satisfied with the gifts before us, while personal growth is very much about not being satisfied with where we’re at and always reaching higher. Why not seek out better jeans or cars if they will bring us more pleasure? Why not seek constantly to grow our business or careers or organizations if doing so keeps us alive and motivated?
When I started my advertising career, I drove an old Renault that had a hole in the floor and a permanent rope to hold one of the doors closed. Thank God I wasn’t very satisfied with that deathtrap — I was a lot more motivated to work harder so I could afford something better, than I was grateful to drive something that killed my dating life.
Was I not grateful for what I had? Or was I pursuing another Jewish ideal of always trying to make things better? Should we expect the angry protesters at Occupy Wall Street, for example, to be grateful for their lives’ little blessings and fold their protests, or should they continue to fight for what they think they are entitled to?
Someone once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe if he was happy, to which he answered: “Always happy, never satisfied.”
Yes, but how do we reconcile these two Jewish ideals — the ideal of always being happy with what we have with the ideal of “never being satisfied”?
One way is to look at gratitude itself as a way of improving your life. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at UC Davis, believes we can all learn how to do it better: “Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself. It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, gifts rather than curses, and people report that it transforms their lives.”
Another approach is to live with both ideas simultaneously: “Things can be worse” and “Things can be better.” One makes you feel better about your lot; the other motivates you to improve it. They’re like two children: Why pick between them? Say thank you a hundred times a day, and, in between, work hard to make things better.
Maybe that’s the ultimate Jewish ideal: to be able to hold competing ideals in tension and not settle for one or the other. To be grateful, yet never satisfied. To be humble, yet bold enough to do big things. To be open to new ideas, yet know one’s boundaries. To be compassionate, yet firm. To be loving, yet speak hard truths. To be a giver, yet know how to receive. To embrace pleasure, yet seek meaning.
That’s what I plan to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: being born into a tradition that understands life is full of competing ideals and difficult choices, and one that also gives us the wisdom to help us pull off that daily balancing act.
Happy Thanksgiving — and Shabbat shalom.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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