On Giv­ing Thanks and Thanks­giv­ing

The Jew­ish Roots o¡ Grat­i­tude

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By A.J. Ja­cobs

For most of my life, I didn’t con­sider grat­i­tude a par­tic­u­larly Jew­ish emo­tion. Quite the con­trary.

I grew up a sec­u­lar Jew, my cul­tural knowl­edge fil­tered through Neil Si­mon and Philip Roth more than the Tal­mud or rab­bis. So to me, anx­i­ety, guilt, re­sent­ment, con­stant ner­vous­ness about dis­eases like sci­at­ica and bur­si­tis — those were Jew­ish emo­tions.

But grat­i­tude? Not so much.

We were, after all, the de­scen­dants of the He­brews who wan­dered the desert for ‰Š years, whin­ing about the lack of ameni­ties.

As an adult, I came to value grat­i­tude not be­cause of my Jew­ish her­itage but be­cause I read a slew of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy books, the pop­u­lar genre that

teaches you to calmly rea­son with your ir­ra­tional in­ner grouch.

I be­came so en­am­ored of grat­i­tude, I made it the topic of my lat­est book, “Thanks a Thou­sand.” In the book, I em­bark on a quest to thank ev­ery sin­gle per­son who had a role (even a tiny one) in mak­ing my morn­ing cup of co‹ee pos­si­ble. I thank the barista, the farmer, the truck driver who trans­ported the co‹ee beans, the folks who built the road for the truck, the peo­ple who painted yel­low lines on the road so that the truck didn’t crash. In short, a whole lot of peo­ple.

And here’s an in­ter­est­ing twist: In re­search­ing the book, I came to re­al­ize grat­i­tude is ac­tu­ally quite Jew­ish, after all. Or at least you can build a case that it is. And when I in­ter­viewed some rab­bis, they did just that. Of course, rab­bis are mas­ters at tak­ing any pos­i­tive trait and claim­ing it’s cen­tral to Ju­daism. But they did present some com­pelling ev­i­dence.

One rabbi pointed out that the very word “Jew” comes from the tribe of Ju­dah, and Ju­dah’s name is de­rived from Ye­hu­dah, which means “thanks­giv­ing.” Ju­dah’s mom, Leah, gave him that name, since she wanted to ex­press her thanks to God. (With her pre­vi­ous boys she’d fo­cused in­stead on how their births might help her win the love of her hus­band, Ja­cob).

“To be Jew­ish is to be thank­ful,” said Josh Franklin, rabbi of the Jew­ish Cen­ter of the Hamp­tons.

For fur­ther ev­i­dence, you could point to the raft of thank­ful­ness prayers ob­ser­vant Jews are re­quired to say in ev­ery­day life.

The first words of the first morn­ing prayer trans­late to “I thank you.” Other thanks­giv­ing prayers are de­light­fully, if oddly, spe­cific.

There’s a prayer of thanks you can say when you see some­one who is near­sighted.

There’s a prayer of thanks for when food re­sem­bles its in­gre­di­ents, and an­other when it doesn’t.

There’s even a prayer of thank­ful­ness for the con­cept of thank­ful­ness. Very meta.

Per­haps the most fa­mous Jew­ish anec­dote about grat­i­tude is the tale of the Jew­ish farmer in the shtetl:

The farmer goes to the rabbi and com­plains that his house is too small. The man can’t stand all the noise of his scream­ing kids and his wife’s clink­ing of pots and pans.

The rabbi tells the man to bring chick­ens to live in the house with him.

The man is bašed, but he does it. The next day, the man goes back to the rabbi to com­plain that the sit­u­a­tion has only de­te­ri­o­rated. The rabbi tells him to bring a goat un­der his roof. Then a cow.

The man re­ports that things are get­ting worse and worse.

Fi­nally, the rabbi tells the man to re­turn all the an­i­mals to the yard. The man does so.

The next day, the man re­turns to the rabbi to re­port that life is great. He’s happy, re­laxed and had the best night’s sleep.

The point of the story, of course, is that we should fo­cus on the things we have in­stead of those things we want. And don’t for­get, things could al­ways get worse.

As it says in Pirke Avot, the an­cient col­lec­tion of Jew­ish wis­dom: “Who is rich? Those who re­joice in their own por­tion.”

I have mixed feel­ings about the farmer story. On the one hand, I ap­pre­ci­ate the dan­gers of what psy­chol­o­gists call the “deficit mind­set.” This is the world­view that says “I will only be happy when X hap­pens.” Of course, when you get X, it will likely be re­placed by Y, which will be re­placed by Z. The he­do­nic tread­mill is re­lent­less.

On the other hand, I worry that the story en­cour­ages com­pla­cency and ac­cep­tance of ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances that some­times can be changed. Maybe the man could have found a third way. Maybe the rabbi should have told the farmer to start an Uber for Plows so that he could make enough money to buy a big­ger, qui­eter house.

It’s a tricky bal­ance: try­ing to be grate­ful while not blindly ac­cept­ing the sta­tus quo.

The fi­nal big theme I no­ticed in Jew­ish grat­i­tude is the im­por­tance of re­al­iz­ing you didn’t do every­thing your­self. God did it. You have to humbly thank the Lord.

As it says in Deuteron­omy, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have mul­ti­plied, and your sil­ver and gold is mul­ti­plied, and all that you have is mul­ti­plied, do not ex­alt your­self, for­get­ting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slav­ery.… Do not say to your­self, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”

I like the idea that you shouldn’t take credit for all your ac­com­plish­ments. But for me, a life­long ag­nos­tic, the God-is­re­spon­si­ble part doesn’t res­onate.

In­stead, I like to fo­cus on all the peo­ple who helped make some­thing pos­si­ble. This was one of the big themes in my co‹ee project. My quest drove home just how many dozens of other hu­mans make my co‹ee pos­si­ble, from the pest con­trol worker at the co‹ee ware­house to the min­ers in Chile who got the cop­per for the wiring in the co‹ee roast­ers.

Barack Obama once gave a speech telling busi­ness own­ers, “You didn’t build this your­self,” which was con­tro­ver­sial, since it ques­tioned Amer­ica’s love of in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment. Per­haps he put it in­del­i­cately, but I agree with the gist.

I told my thoughts to a rabbi who di­rected me to this pas­sage by the sec­ond-cen­tury scholar Simeon Ben Zoma. Ben Zoma wrote: “How much la­bor must Adam have ex­pended be­fore he ob­tained a gar­ment to wear! He sheared and washed the wool, combed and spun it, wove, and after that he ob­tained a gar­ment to wear. By con­trast, I get up in the morn­ing and find all this pre­pared for me. All ar­ti­sans at­tend and come to the door of my house, and I get up and find all these things be­fore me.”

So there you go. Ben Zoma scooped me by —,˜™™ years.



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