To Have a Grateful Disposition
I happen to be a fan of David Brooks, the New York Times philosopher in residence. An article that caught my eye a few months ago was on gratitude. You have to love a story that begins the way he began that article: “I’m sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel.” I get that. The nicer the hotel, the higher your expectations. And the higher your expectations the more easily you’ll be annoyed if they are not met. It’s interesting how the higher our expectation for what’s owed us, the easier we become disappointed with what we get; and the lower our expectations, the more content and grateful we are with what we have.
All of us know what it’s like to be grateful. You’d have to be a particular kind of ogre, or have led a really horrible life, to have never experienced gratitude to someone for something. This kind of gratitude I think is particular; it’s the gratitude that comes when, as Brooks wrote, “…some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved.”
But there are some people, he points out, who are grateful by their very disposition. “They seem thankful practically all of the time.” Speaking on behalf of the Jewish tradition, I think that’s the way we are supposed to be: people who feel grateful for all they have; and whatever they have. We are supposed to feel gratitude for our upbringing, for friends and those who came before us and bequeathed traditions and wisdom to us. We are supposed to be grateful for the opportunities we have in life, even if we didn’t deserve them. We should be grateful for kindness done for us, for care people have given us. My guess is if I were a pastor I’d be able to say the same thing to my people, that as Christians we ought to be grateful by our very disposition.
And don’t let me fail to mention, we are also supposed to be grateful to God, the source of all. And we are supposed to be grateful all the time; not just when things go our way. That’s the nature of gratitude as a religious person understands it.
I was once talking to a Bar Mitzvah student who asked me, Rabbi, why does God need us to thank Him? I wasn’t sure what he meant, so he elaborated: it seems that in every worship service we always thank God for freeing us from Egyptian slavery. Does God need that for his ego? To feel good about Himself by having people always thanking Him and telling Him how great He is?
Those are pretty good questions. Here’s what I said to him. Has anyone ever done you a really huge favor? Yes, he said. And I asked, what did you feel or say when that happened? I said thank you and told the person that if they ever needed anything from me, let me know!
I said I think that’s the way it is with God. We thank God all the time and at the same time ask God, what can we do for You? And then I asked my student another question: what is it that God wants back from us? And he answered: mitzvoth! The commandments! Following God’s ways.
God’s liberation of the Jewish people was an act that forever put us in His debt; a debt we repay with our gratitude. But our gratitude doesn’t just take the form of prayers of praise – though there are plenty of those in the Jewish prayerbooks. God is not so shallow as to feel good just because people are saying nice things about him. No, I think it goes deeper than that.
Our liberation is the central story of our Torah, the Five Books of Moses. We are supposed to keep the memory of slavery and redemption before us all the time, and to actually relive the memory of Exodus on Passover. At our Seder tables we tell the biography of our people, repeating words the Israelite was to recite at the Temple when he appeared there to renew the covenant on another festival, Shavuot — Tabernacles. This is how ancient Israelite religion institutionalized gratitude. And the question is: why? What’s the purpose of remembering God’s saving act and thanking God?
When the pilgrim gets to the temple in Jerusalem to thank God he approaches the priest with a basket of first fruits to offer in gratitude for the blessings of the land. He puts the basket down and recites a little speech. He begins with these words, Arami oved avi – which mean something about a distant long ago Aramean and what someone did to “my father” – some distant ancestor. The Hebrew is so confusing that we don’t know if the Aramean is the ancestor or the one who sought to do something to the ancestor.
After this enigmatic opening, then the pilgrim recounts the history of the Jewish people, at least the history the author of Deuteronomy thinks is important: something happened to the ancestor because. So the ancestor left and went to Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved us, we cried to God and God liberated us.
So the Jewish people’s story begins with: Arami oved avi. Usually it’s translated as: My father was a wandering Aramean. Who was this person, this father from the distant past? Abraham? Jacob? Laban? You could make a case for any of them. And what does “oved” mean? That’s the verb; what was done to the ancestor. The phrase has confounded commentators for centuries.
I learned from the scholar Israel Knohl, that “oved” here means a refugee of war – telling us that this ancestor referred to as Avi (my father) was a war refugee. Professor Knohl thinks the ancestor in the verse probably refers in general to the early Israelites. We know that the Israelites first came into Canaan after a horrendous war in the 13th century BCE in the area of Haran. The local population was slaughtered. 1500 people were blinded. It was a very cruel conquest by the Assyrians. There was mass starvation. The people were suffering. So, Arami oved – there were a group of people who ran away from this cruel war in Haran and came to Canaan. The “avi” – My father, referred to in the confession to the priest was not a specific person. Our history began with our collective parents running away from war.
What happens when you are a war refugee? We are all too aware of this, as Europe is teeming with war refugees now and our nation is struggling with the question of what we should do about those refugees. What is the refugee life like? You have no land; no home; nothing. The history of the Jewish people started by our ancestors losing everything we had in Haran. Then what happened? The Israelite continues reciting our history and says we went to Egypt. Again, in Egypt, our status was as the refugee, and the Egyptians ended up enslaving us. We had no legal rights in Egypt. We were the “ger” – the stranger; the one who owns no land.
Then the confession of the grateful Israelite begins to conclude: and now God has brought us into our own land where we don’t work for others, and have some measure of security in life.
That’s the history of the Jewish people as the Israelite would recite to the priest, as proscribed by the Book of Deuteronomy. We lost everything; we fled; we were enslaved; we were liberated and given our own land.
What’s astonishing is that there is no mention of a place called Mt. Sinai and giving the Torah. It’s not here. Why not? To Jews that’s always been the climax of the Exodus. Just watch the movie, The Ten Commandments.
However, clearly, it wasn’t important to the writer of Deuteronomy. The point of the confession to the priest is to describe the contrast between the early history of the Israelites and their present situation. We started under terrible circumstances: we lost everything and had to flee for our lives. We ended up in Egypt. There, we were the ger, the stranger, again with no property. We were slaves. The whole economy of Egypt was based on slavery. But now! Now, you are thriving in the Land which the Eternal your God gave you. The author of Deuteronomy knew that when people become the haves, that’s precisely when they need to be reminded what it’s like to be a have-not. The whole ceremony in front of the priest, who doesn’t say a word during the entire ritual, was designed, as Passover was, to instill in the heart of every Jew gratitude to God for all He’s done for us.
But that’s not the main point.
Because now come the final instructions for this ritual. “… you shall rejoice, together with the Levite and the ger, the stranger in your midst…” You started as a ger, a destitute homeless stranger. Now you have land and prosperity. Show your appreciation for what you have by sharing it with those who have nothing. Now that you are settled and earning a living; you must not forget where you came from; nor those who are now like you were then: gerim, strangers; the vulnerable, the weak, the poor. They are your brothers and sisters. You are no better than them. They will share in your bounty. Invite them to celebrate your holidays with you. You may not be indifferent to them. How could you? You were once them.
36 times the Torah will tell the Jews to love the stranger, the ger – because we were once gerim; and over 50 times the Torah will exhort us to take very good care of the stranger. And as far as Deuteronomy is concerned that’s the all you need to know about Judaism and religion; even more important than the giving of Torah is to know this – you cannot be indifferent to those around you. You have to care. And that’s why God wants to teach us gratitude.
Last week a Bar Mitzvah family sat in my office. But before we started talking about the upcoming Bar Mitzvah, they asked me what I thought about the refugee problem. What do you think I told them?
Being religious isn’t just about thanking God and hoping to go to heaven, but out of gratitude for the blessings God has given us, committing to making the blessings and opportunities of this life more fairly and equitably available to everyone. I grew up thinking that to be a Jew you might observe the Sabbath and holy days; you might keep kosher; but you couldn’t be a racist, and you had to favor the underprivileged.
What makes you right with God? It’s your relationship to the vulnerable, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, in your midst. The worker, the refugee, the minority, the mentally ill, the aged, those overlooked and struggling. The rituals of the temple and the prayers that eventually replaced the sacrifices, all meant to thank God for the good God has done, all that thanking provides no assurance of God’s protection. How shallow would that be? No, it is the quality of justice and righteousness in your society that determines the fate of your nation. The fundamentalists say your relationship with God will protect you. And that they know what God wants. But the prophet says that’s not true. Don’t worry about God smelling the sweet aroma of thanksgiving sacrifices going up to the heavens. Worry about those down here who are poor and vulnerable, all for whom justice isn’t working in their favor. Don’t look up; look down. You don’t earn God’s protection through prayers of thanksgiving, but by how you protect the unprotected.
In our churches and synagogues and mosques we are taught to give thanks for our blessings, to be grateful to the God who created this world and gifted us with the goodness around us and the resources to enjoy life and savor its sweetness. Every morning in the synagogue you will hear the words of the biblical poet who wrote:
“It is good to give thanks to God;
And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High.
To proclaim Your goodness in the morning;
And Your faithfulness at night.
Why is it “good” to give thanks to God? In Hebrew the word for “good” has a moral connotation. It is good, from a moral perspective to give thanks because of what gratitude teaches. In addition to teaching us modesty, it teaches us to be grateful for what we have; and out of that gratitude to take care of those who have less than we do. No matter what our circumstances, we should be grateful for what we have, and express that gratitude by being kind and helpful to others. So, enjoy your Thanksgiving feasts tomorrow, be thankful for your blessings, and be mindful that others have nothing, or little, to put on their Thanksgiving tables. Than your thanksgiving holiday will be “tov” — “good.”