Feeling gratitude: It’s important not to take our blessings for granted

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)

The story is told of a man who left his office at the end of the day’s work and found a beggar asking him for ten shekels.  “I will soon be going to sleep and I have not yet had a cup of coffee,” he said.  The man gave him a 100 shekel note and said to him:  “Take 100, so that you can drink not one, but ten cups of coffee.”

The next day the same beggar was again waiting for him after work, and boxed him straight in the left eye.  “Tell me,” the man said.  “Are you crazy?  Only yesterday I gave you 100 shekels and now you hit me?” The beggar said to him:  “Who do you think can sleep after ten cups of coffee?”

Sometimes we have to learn not only to say thank you, but how to say thank you.  It is one of the first things we learn as youngsters.  In whatever language we may be trained, we are asked not only to express thanks, but to actually feel a sense of gratitude for something good that has been done to us.

In Jewish tradition, there is a concept known as “Hakarot Hatov”, which can be translated as gratitude, but really means to recognize or familiarize oneself with goodness.  As Rabbi David Wolpe points out:  “We sit in the Sukkah and are grateful for our homes.  We begin the Torah anew and are grateful for the gift of G-d’s words.  At a time of loss, we mourn; but all the time that precedes it, when we are in possession of blessings, of life, of love, should we not be grateful?”  The obligation of Hakarot Hatov is not merely to remember to say thank you, but to recognize the benefit that one has received from another.

The Torah portion of this Shabbat addresses a time when the Israelites would settle in the Land of Israel.  Moses instructs them to place in their baskets the first fruits of the harvest and to present them, together with a prayer, to the Priests in the sanctuary.  The prayer is familiar to all of us.  It forms the major part of the Magid section found in the Haggadah of Pesach:  “My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.  We cried to the Lord, the G-d of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.  The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”

Often we take so much for granted.  Years ago, the London Jewish Chronicle carried a story after the Second World War about a bereaved mother and father who donated a beautiful stained glass window in memory of their son who was killed in the war.  During the service, another mother whispered to her husband, “Let’s do the same for our son.”  The husband was shocked.  “What do you mean, our boy is still alive?”  “Of course” said the mother, “that’s what I mean.  Let’s show our thankfulness that he came home safe.”

We take for granted those things that are most important to us – our health, our family, our economic prosperity, our ability to find meaning in life, that is, until we lose them.  Most of us learn the hard way.  It is only when we suffer the loss of one of these items that we recognize how good we really had it.  Do we really appreciate the love of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child or a good friend until they are no longer with us?  Do we appreciate freedom until we lose it?  Do we understand what economic anxiety is all about while we are blessed with prosperity?

That is the reason that the Israelites are told that they are to be kind to the stranger, for they were strangers in the Land of Egypt and, therefore, should know of their predicament.  That is the reason that we are commanded to see ourselves personally leaving Egypt on Seder eve, so that we can understand the blessings of freedom.  And that is the reason that the first thing we recite in the morning when we arise is the Modeh Ani prayer – “I am grateful to You, O living and eternal G-d, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion, abundant is your faithfulness.”

Rare is the individual who truly understands his blessings without taking them for granted.  Perhaps that is the reason that Rabbi Judah told us that we are commanded to recite 100 blessings each day.  What he was trying to teach us is that each day is a gift, one that we should never take for granted.

In most cases, showing Hakarot Hatov is not difficult.  However, we don’t always think about it.  Rabbi Debra Orenstein suggests that we start a gratitude journal.  Based on the day’s events, she suggests that we write down specific things for which we are grateful.  Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath suggest that we choose a single moment that occurs everyday, whether it be exercising, eating or even taking a vitamin, and consider adding a ritual that demonstrates our gratitude for it.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that he learned a wonderful practice from a rabbinic colleague:  “Even during hard times, we all have experiences or interactions for which we are grateful.  It is important to focus on those happy memories, even, perhaps particularly, during hard times.”  He suggests that before we even begin eating at our Shabbat table we respond to the question:  “What good thing happened to me this week?”  It will put us in a good mood for Shabbat and allow us to give gratitude for what we may have taken for granted.  Pick your own ritual or create one yourself.  But, however you do so, give thanks, show Hakarot Hatov, for even the small things in life.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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