Real gratitude: Appreciating life, in good times and bad

By Rabbi Wendi Geffen, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10−32:3)

Countless Americans just gathered to share in the time-honored observance of Thanksgiving.  There were autumnal decorations, football watching, and the consuming of all-things turkey. Many also took time to share that for which they are thankful this season, in some way paying homage to what should be, a key theme of the holiday: gratitude.  

In Western culture, we define gratitude as the quality of feeling or being thankful for the gifts and blessings we receive.  When we perceive something positive has happened to us, as a result, we experience and (hopefully) express gratitude.  But Jewish tradition ups the ante on this conventional definition, moving the concept out of a passive, reactive realm and into an active, transformative experience.  

One Hebrew term for gratitude – hakarat hatov – offers us a key insight into this shift.  Literally meaning “recognizing the good,” hakarat hatov invites the understanding that gratitude need not only be that feeling after experiencing or receiving something positive, but moreover, gratitude can be something we seek out and cultivate proactively, recognizing the good that is already ours in every situation, even the negative ones.  

Serendipitously (or not), this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, offers us a powerful example of this countercultural notion.  In it, we learn the sad story of Leah, the unmarried, older daughter of Laban.  In the portion, our patriarch Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Leah’s younger sister.  At their wedding, Laban, thanks to the opaqueness of biblical bridal veils, puts Leah in Rachel’s place causing Jacob to marry Leah instead.  

Not pleased, Jacob agrees to work for Rachel’s father for another period of years in order to eventually marry Rachel as well.  All the while, Jacob does not and will never love Leah.  She is truly a victim of her circumstances, about which there is very little she can change. When the Divine takes note of her situation, she is blessed with fertility. But the names she chooses for her first three children reflect not her aspirations for the new lives of her offspring, but rather only her desperation to be loved by her husband.  Nevertheless and sadly, her yearnings for love remain completely unrequited.

When Leah births her fourth son, Yehudah, something changes. The Torah reads: “She conceived again and bore a son, and declared: ‘This time I will thank G-d.'” This time, Leah makes no mention or even inference to her struggle and suffering, despite the fact that struggle and suffering certainly remain.  

Of note is the somewhat strange teaching in the Talmud naming  Leah as the first person to express gratitude to G-d.  Noting that at least one other person does in fact offer thanks before Leah, renowned Biblical scholar Rabbi Shai Held suggests that Leah is the first to offer full gratitude in its highest form.  He writes:

“What makes Leah’s gratitude unique; what is it that establishes her as the first truly grateful person? It is one thing to be grateful when everything is wonderful, when all our dreams have been fulfilled and all our hungers sated. But it is quite another to be grateful when life is complicated, when some of our most cherished dreams have remained painfully unrealized… Leah is the first person to feel and express gratitude even and especially amid profound sorrow and enduring disappointment.”

Indeed, American culture may understand gratitude as reserved for that which we experience as positive, but the Jewish frame provides a structure for the experience of gratitude wherever we are on life’s journey, in the heights, depths, or most likely somewhere in between. A Jewish experience of gratitude invites us to see the good even when it is difficult, contextualizing our reactivity to the negative in our lives with a sense of purpose and direction, enabling us, not only to move forward amidst challenge, but also to potentially impact the world for the better as well.  

By cultivating an attitude of gratitude, by practicing hakarat hatov – seeking out the good – we can indeed live our lives with heightened purpose, empowerment, and meaning, in this season of Thanksgiving, and all the days of the year.

Rabbi Wendi Geffen is the rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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