On November 4th, I was asked to give a talk at the International Cultural Center in Montgomery Village, MD on the topic of "The Importance of Gratitude in Judaism." In preparing for the talk, I quickly realized just how important gratitude is to all systems of faith -- and, for that matter, to any worthwhile secular world view.
Because it is now Thanksgiving Weekend, I felt that this would be the appropriate time to share the talk. Happy Thanksgiving from the Empathic Rationalist.
Gratitude. What a holy word that is. In Judaism, we have one set of words that rein above all others, and of course I’m referring to the names for God. But when it comes to mere words, gratitude would be on the very top tier. It has to be – for the moral value of gratitude forms much of the basis of both Jewish culture and the Jewish religion.
Simply by referring to someone as a Jew in no way clarifies whether we are talking about him as a member of the Jewish people or, alternatively, as a practitioner of the Jewish faith. And that is because the word “Jewish” refers to both a folk and a faith. On the one hand, we are talking about a nation, a people, a culture, a heritage; and on the other, a body of theological teachings, practices and principles. Some Jews identify themselves deeply with the Jewish people, yet have no use for the religion. Others are just the opposite – they may believe deeply in the Jewish God and practice the religious rituals, yet not care a whit for Jewish peoplehood. And of course, there still others of us who associate ourselves with both Jewish peoplehood and the religion. Notably, though, all three sets of Jews are tied together by certain values, and it is these values that form the glue for the folk and the faith. Gratitude is among the very top values on that list. Lose that value, and you can truly call yourself a lapsed Jew.
Historically, there are few communities more closely knit than Jewish ones, and the same can be said for the Jewish family. Just look at me – I still live 600 feet from my parents’ house. They call that old school. I call it gratitude. The famous Jewish passion for education is largely fueled by the gratitude to all who have taught us – schoolteachers as well as parents – and the desire to ensure that their work has not been in vain. The Jewish emphasis on taking care of our own kind, which hastened our rise to economic success in the United States, is surely a function, in part, of the desire for self-preservation. But it is also an expression of gratitude for a group of families who cared for one another during centuries on end, while they were being booted from country after country -- ghettoized here, forcibly converted there. And it is the same value that has helped to caused Jews to assimilate themselves in melting-pot nations like the United States. Wherever we find a benefactor, Jew or gentile, we seek to express our gratitude, which entails love, respect, and to some degree, emulation.
Jews are universalistic largely because we are grateful to those from every nation who have made this world as rich and varied as it is. We realize we have enjoyed the fruits of all of the world’s great cultures, and that makes us wish to support them. But gratitude is a double edged sword when it comes to Jewish universality. For we are also grateful to the soldiers, farmers and other pioneers who during one of our people’s darkest eras, risked their lives to build a Jewish State against seemingly insurmountable odds. Candidly, such gratitude is one of the reasons why Jews will continue to fight so hard to maintain a Jewish State in the land of Israel, even as the idea of “Zionism” has come to be attacked in much of Europe as well as Asia.
So yes, the value of gratitude is at the heart of what makes Jews tick as a people. But if anything, this value is even more integral to the Jewish religion. If I were to summarize my greatest impulse as a religious Jew, I would say that it is our job to honor God. And why is it so important to honor God? Because our sense of gratitude requires nothing less.
When life is spent grateful for who and what we have, and when the world is experienced as a wonderland of meaning, it is then that gratitude boils over like a pot of water. As I’ve said, we feel the need to repay all of our benefactors, but this is especially applicable to the one we name God. And this is why the religious Jew sees God as not only the Ultimate Benefactor, but also as the Ultimate Beloved.
When gratitude is taken most seriously, God can become an almost insatiable need – a need for the One to whom we are able to express our thanks for life itself. Religious Jews can wrestle with how best to envision that beloved, relate to that beloved, or honor that beloved. We can ruminate about the meaning of ultimacy, and what makes one conception of God more “ultimate” than another. We can even contemplate whether some ways of talking about the Ultimate Beloved are helpful or harmful to our ability to honor God. But as for the existence of that God or the central value of expressing thankfulness to God … that we have trouble questioning. We feel such a profound sense of appreciation for this world, for life as a whole, and for the unity that we find in life, that we viscerally must express thanks. That, above all else, is what makes the Jewish impulse to pray so powerful.
Our Torah directs us to love our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul and with all of our might. (The V’havta – Deut. 6:5) And indeed, if you attend one of our services, you would be treated to prayer after prayer after prayer expressing our thankfulness to God. The Torah tells us to express our gratitude to God for the “good land” that the Divine has given us, a land of varied foods, plentiful minerals, and ever-flowing water. (Deut. 8:10) And the Jew is indeed admonished to be content with his or her lot, even as we work hard to rid the world of injustice or war. As was taught in our Talmud, “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot.” (P.A. 4-1) And that is because, to a religious Jew, what we receive comes from God, and when we honor what the world has given us, we honor God.
Of course, that directive goes both ways. If we wish to honor God, we must treat one another with honor, care for the poor, and fight injustice and ignorance. Just as Islam has its Prophets, we have our own. And of all the points the Jewish Prophets make, none is more important than that a religious Jew should be known primarily through her acts to transform the world, and not her ceremonial rituals. I would like to think this is a point on which cultural and religious Jews agree.
As is said in our Talmud, “One who learns from his companion a single chapter, a single law, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter, should accord him respect.” (P.A. 6:3) Now imagine how we should treat a lifelong friend, a sibling, or a parent. And now, imagine how we should treat the One to whom we owe not merely our own lives, but the very existence of our world – indeed, the very existence of every world, known and unknown.
In a civilization overrun with consumerism, we come to see ourselves primarily in terms of our own individual rights and interests. But in a civilization that takes Judaism seriously, either as a folk or a faith, we come to see ourselves primarily in terms of our duties. And when it comes to those duties, there is none more fundamental than the duties of gratitude – except perhaps those of humility. Together, these two values enable us to honor God and God’s world, including our fellow human beings.
Maybe, there will another opportunity for this group to honor humility as a value. It is, in fact, the value of humility that has caused the rabbis to designate Moses the greatest Jew of all – for he is considered to have been the most humble. I am not aware of whether the rabbis identify a single figure as the most “grateful.” Candidly, all of the great figures of the Jewish faith are assumed to be people of gratitude – otherwise how can they be viewed as worshippers of God?
Perhaps, then, when it comes to considering the most transformative leaders of our religion, gratitude is taken for granted. But we all know that when it comes to our own secular society – as best illustrated by the young athletes and other entertainers who frequently grace our television sets – this is a quality in terribly short supply.
So, how important is gratitude? This much I can say: if you envision a hypothetical person as a blank slate and then pile up one positive characteristic after another, only to then strip him of his sense of gratitude, from a Jewish standpoint, what you would be left with is a scary prospect. So many virtues flow from this characteristic. Remove it, and you might find someone who is productive, or even useful, but you would not find a person who is pious, and you would not find a person who is a practicing Jew, even the narrowest, purely-cultural sense of that term.