Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving Lesson: How Does Judaism Define Gratitude?

In Hebrew, the compound phrase of הכרת הטוב is normally translated as gratitude.  This translation, however, is an inadequate one.  The more literal translation of this phrase is "recognizing the good."

In theory, when we think of recognition, we think "acknowledgment."  One of the lessons that Judaism is trying to convey is that at a minimum, one has to acknowledge the fact that even if life is rife with suffering, good exists.  Does this mean that Judaism teaches us to ignore suffering that goes around us?  Of course not!  As a realist and Deist, I would never advocate one to ignore reality.  That would be a denial of truth.  But it is just as much of a denial of truth to say that there is not an iota of goodness in one's life.  To quote Alan Morinis from his book Everyday Holiness (p. 64):

"If you've lost your job but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for.  If you can't move around except in a wheelchair, but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for.  If your house burns down but you still have your memories, you have something to be grateful for.  If you've broken a string on your violin, and you still have three strings, you have something to be grateful for."

Even in something such as this character trait, I find that Judaism is once again being pragmatic about dealing with life.  We are not asked to evade familial disputes or financial troubles.  At least when it comes to Judaism, Karl Marx was incorrect to say that religion is an opiate for the masses.  But Judaism also teaches that in spite of our troubles, we are not only to recognize the good, but also emphasize it.  Rather than absconding from the scene or disregarding that which is going on around you, Judaism provides a mentality that makes us stronger and gives us a more positive outlook on life when dealing with what many cynics define as a cruel, heartless world.  That is why Ben Zoma (Pirke Avot 4:1) recognizes that a rich man is not one who has a lot of material wealth, but rather rejoices (i.e., is thankful) for his lot.

Although one could use mere recognition as a secular form of positive psychology, if you are to truly emphasize the goodness in your life, you have to express that recognition into gratitude, which is why Judaism takes that recognition to the next level by actually giving thanks.  That is also why Judaism gives us so many opportunities to bless and give thanks.

That is why I will take the time this Thanksgiving to reflect the good given to me.  First, I thank G-d for creating the universe.  Why?  Because I know that creating the universe was not necessary of Him.  He could have just existed by Himself since His infinitude makes Him truly self-sufficient and independent, something a human being can technically ever acquire.  Without the creation of the universe, I would not be here to ponder the meaning of life and become an ethically sound individual.  I am thankful that my friends and family care about me and provide a support system that only gets stronger with each passing day.  I am thankful for the divine-like intellect G-d has given me so I can further study and further develop it as time continues.  I am thankful to be employed so I can pay the bills, put a roof over my head, provide food to put on the table, and not have to worry about financial woes.

I realize that I can kvetch and moan about all the evil and indifference in the world.  And for those who know me well enough, I manage to do so.  However, in spite of all the problems in the world, I can remember the wonders and joys I have in life.  At the least, it helps me get through the day, and in an increasing number of cases, it helps me to enjoy the life I have.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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