Since I’m working on the middah of gratitude this week, I want to focus on the morning blessings, Birkot ha-shachar, in my daily prayers. These blessings all start with the foundational six words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha-olam, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe,” and then go on to thank God for a specific gift—for opening our eyes, providing clothing, giving us a firm step, giving strength to the weary. By reciting these blessings—fourteen in the Koren Siddur that I use—I can build my day on a platform of gratitude.
I’d hate to cite one of our patriarchs as a bad example, but at first glance our father Yaakov doesn’t seem to express gratitude when Yosef presents him to Pharaoh. The king asks, “How many are the years of your life?” and Yaakov answers, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Gen. 47:8–9). Gratitude is hikarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, but Yaakov seems to focus on the bad instead.
One of the biggest surprises in the narrative of Genesis comes during Yaakov’s reunion with Esau when he returns to the land of Canaan. When Esau comes to meet his brother with a menacing entourage of 400 men, but when he sees Yaakov, he runs to embrace him and weep together with him at their reunion (Gen. 33:4).
Gratitude usually comes easily when receiving a gift (assuming it’s a gift we want). When a friend shows kindness towards me, it is very easy to be consciously grateful for that friend. It is a sad reality that it is difficult to maintain consistent, conscious gratefulness for the people in our lives beyond the times they seem to most demonstrate kindness towards us.
In our society, we have institutionalized the practice of gratitude. People say "thank you" without thinking, and without any genuine sense of thanks. It's become a meaningless courtesy, like "Goodbye," which originally meant "God Be with Ye."
I’m basing my practice of mussar on the Shema for the next cycle or two. I’m inspired to do this just from learning the Shema more deeply the past few months, and also by some recent reading, including The Year of Living like Jesus by Ed Dobson.
On his way to Yerushalayim he was passing between Shomron and the Galil. As he came to a certain village, ten metzora'im came to greet him. They stood at a distance. They lifted their voice and called, "Yeshua! Teacher! Be gracious to us!" He saw them and said to them, "Go and be shown to the priests." When they went, they were purified. When one of them saw that he was healed, he returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at his feet and thanked him. He was a Shomroni. Yeshua responded and said, "Were not ten purified? Where are the other nine? Was not anyone found that would return to give glory to God except for this one foreigner? He said to him, "Arise and go. Your faith has saved you." -- Luke 17:11-19, DHE
“Thank you for being here today,” my mom would say to every cashier, bagger, customer service worker, etc. for as many years as I can remember. She would often get varying responses. Every now and then there would be a smile, or the person would strike up a conversation. There were even times that my mom would get a dirty look! When I was younger, I never really understood why my mom did it. Was she really thankful that particular person was bagging her groceries? Mostly I thought this couldn’t really be the case. She would even say it to the people who were rude. I didn’t get it.
Rabbi Salanter once noticed that a fancy restaurant was charging a huge price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the coffee was so expensive. After all, some hot water, a few coffee beans and a spoonful of sugar could not amount to more than a few cents.
The owner replied: "It is correct that for a few cents you could have coffee in your own home. But here in the restaurant, we provide exquisite decor, soft background music, professional waiters, and the finest china to serve your cup of coffee."
Rabbi Salanter's face lit up. "Oh, thank you very much! I now understand the blessing of Shehakol -- 'All was created by His word' -- which we recite before drinking water. You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water that He created. Now I understand the blessing much better. 'All' includes not merely the water, but also the fresh air that we breathe while drinking the water, the beautiful world around us, the music of the birds that entertain us and exalt our spirits, each with its different voice, the charming flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze -- for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!"