During this pandemic, I think we’ve all become experts on managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Studies show that having gratitude reduces anxiety. Gratitude activates the brain chemical dopamine, which makes you feel good so you’ll want it again and again.
Studies show when people pray they become more aware, not of what they don’t have, but for the blessings they have to be thankful for. This is where we get the phrase, “Count your blessings.”
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s book, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens, says responding gratefully “allows people to positively interpret everyday circumstances.”
We are called “Yehudim,” meaning “The people who give thanks.” The Hebrew words for thanks, “Todah” and “Modeh,” come from the word, “Viduy,” confession, which we say so often on Yom Kippur. We are admitting we have benefited because of you.
When the prayer leader says, Modim anachnu lach (“We give thanks to You”), the congregation says Modim d’Rabbanan, “We give thanks.” Rabbi Elijah Spira explains, “When it comes to saying thank you, we cannot delegate this away to someone else to do it on our behalf. Thanks have to come directly from us.”
We start the day by saying, Modeh ani l’fanecha that I am “grateful am I for my life.” A Jew first must thank before we think. The entire day is different when we realize we have blessings in our lives.
When saying the Modeh Ani, we should really say, “I am so grateful for my life”; but if we started with “I,” it would mean my entire day, all of my time, is centered on “I.” With Modeh Ani, I think of one blessing I have to be thankful for: life. It’s a gift. Now, what am I going to do with my day? Think of it as a blessing that you have, and then begin your day.
While the Temple stood, there were many types of sacrifices. However, the Midrash (VaYikra Rabbah) states that all of the korbanos (sacrifices) will be annulled in the future except for the Korban Todah, the sacrifice of thanks.
The Rebbe of Belz said this is hinted to in the Ma’oz Tzur song we sing on Chanukah: “Restore My house of prayer and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.” It is the only korban (sacrifice) referred to in this poem.
During King David’s reign, there was a terrible plague that took the lives of exactly 100 people each day. The rabbis at the time perceived what the spiritual cause was and instituted the practice of reciting 100 blessings per day. The plague immediately stopped.
This is hinted to in Sefer D’varim, when Moses says to the Jewish people: “What (Mah) does G-d ask of you?” The Talmud explains that the word mah can also be read as mei’ah (100). The tradition to recite (at least) 100 brachos each day is still with us.
Hashem does not need our appreciation or thanks. Hakaras ha’tov is for our benefit. The Rambam writes that the more one thanks and praises Hashem, the more elevated that person becomes. Our hakaras ha’tov and the refinement of our character as a result, brings us closer to Hashem, which is the purpose of life.
HaRav Chaim Friedlander teaches how we first must recognize and appreciate the good from Hashem Who alone provides the results. What we bring is the desire, the heart, choice, and effort. “Ki Hu l’vado” – all the results are from Hashem.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites “The Nun Study.” About 700 American nuns, all members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States, had their records reviewed by a research team.
In 1930, the nuns had written brief autobiographical accounts of their lives and their reasons for entering the convent. Their documents and writings over the years were looked at for positive and negative emotions.
The results in 2001 found that the more positive emotions – contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope – that the nuns expressed in their autobiographical notes, the longer their lives – as much as seven years.
Gratitude was not Israel’s strong point in the desert. They complained about the manna, the lack of meat and vegetables, the dangers from the Egyptians, and about the inhabitants in the land they were about to enter. They lacked thankfulness during difficult times, but this is not what Moshe warns about:
“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 L-rd your G-d, 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.’”
When Aaron passed, the Torah says the entire nation stopped and mourned. When Miriam passed, there is no mention of mourning. Rather, it states, “There was no water for the congregation.”
Miriam had lovingly stood guard over infant Moshe while he was floating in a basket on the Nile; she courageously convinced Pharaoh’s daughter to entrust the baby to the care of Yocheved, Moshe’s mother; and Miriam inspired the women to praise, dance, and sing to Hashem at the Splitting of the Red Sea.
How could people forget her? There is an all-too-familiar adage: “What have you done for me lately?”
Hashem reminded the Jewish people an important pillar: Hakaras HaTov (acknowledging the good). They had to remember that it was in the merit of Miriam that they were granted the gift of water in the desert.
The Torah gives a simple tip for longevity: “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land the Lrd your Gd is assigning to you.”
An anonymous 13th-century author of the Sefer HaChinuch says: “The principle of honoring one’s own parents is that it is proper for a person to recognize and show gratitude to people who were good to him, and not be ungrateful, because that is bad and the most repulsive attribute before G-d and people.”
I can’t say I appreciated my father enough when I was younger. I think Mark Twain said it best:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
My father didn’t hold grudges or demand apologies. “One who judges another favorably is himself judged favorably.” (Talmud, Shabbos).
My father was a life-long educator. While some teachers looked at what students needed to work on, my father found what they were good at. The word education comes from the Latin word, Educare, to draw out. In social work, it is a strengths-based approach. By focusing on the positive, it brings out the positive in the person. By focusing on their strengths, it helps them survive tough times.
With each passing day, I see how much my father, and my mother, sacrificed for me. I see how they lived out the principles: “To love G-d with all your heart, spirit, and resources,” which Rabbi Akiva called, “A great principle of Torah.”
According to a midrash, the world was created for the sake of the Bikurim (the giving of the first fruits to the Temple). The Alshich says that this is because they contain the idea of gratitude, thanking Hashem for what He has given.
Gratitude creates bonds. Gratitude builds love.
This d’var Torah is dedicated in memory of my father, Chaim ben Abba. May his neshamah have an aliyah.
By David Schneier