Attitude of Gratitude
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But there is also another category of giver, a giver who insists that the choice between “what is mine,” and “what is yours” is not either/or, but both/and. Grant studies volunteers who enjoy higher levels of happiness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction because they give of their time and wisdom. Charitable individuals who work harder, longer, and smarter because they are generous with their resources. Such individuals carry themselves with a certain spiritual posture. They are eyes wide open to the blessings of their lives; they know themselves to be fortunate; they live with an attitude of gratitude that is leveraged in the most obvious way: They give. They then see the impact their giving has on their world, and they thrive further because of it. For such people, gratitude and giving go hand-in-hand. Altruism and self-interest are not only not at odds, but they are interdependent, two sides of the same coin. One gives because one is grateful; one is grateful because one can give. It is a virtuous cycle that goes on and on and on.
Adam Grant’s thesis is not exactly new, at least to the Jewish community. As far back as the opening lines of this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish world has drawn a correlation between gratitude and giving. “When you enter the land,” our Torah reading states, “you shall take of the first fruits of the soil and offer them before the Lord.” The ancient pilgrim was obligated to recite Israel’s journey from the sorrows of Egyptian oppression to freedom by way of God’s saving hand; from the wilderness travail to the land of milk and honey. The basket of fruit shall be left before the Lord, and “you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
All of the ingredients are present. The pilgrim gives from the very best, the first fruits of the harvest. The ritualized telling of Israel’s spiritual and physical journey affirms that whatever the present blessings being enjoyed, they came by way of those who came before. Filled with an attitude of gratitude, two things happen to the Israelite. First, giving, and second, enjoyment. V’samahta b’khol ha-tov asher natan l’kha Adonai Elohekha. “You shall enjoy … all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.” The fruits of one’s labors become that much sweeter because they are shared with the Levite and the stranger. It is not either/or, it is both/and. There is gratitude, there is giving, there is enjoyment.
If there is one sentiment that Judaism seeks to engender, it is a feeling of gratitude. It is so easy to walk through this world with a glass-half-empty mentality. We wait for the other shoe to drop, suspicious of everyone and everything. Our world is so rife with hurt and imperfection that each one of us, if we chose to do so, could carry a perpetually wounded sensibility, a sensibility whose natural extension is a posture of entitlement, a posture whose natural response is to be a taker. We have been hurt, we will be hurt again, and therefore we must take what is our due, and God help the person who dares tell us otherwise.
Not so, teaches our faith. The first word a Jew utters every day is modeh, from the same root as todah: Modeh ani l’fanekha, grateful am I for the blessing of being alive to see a new day. The order of the words, as my classmate Rabbi Shai Held has taught, is instructive. One cannot acknowledge the self – the ani, I – until one has first said modeh, thanks. Upon entering a house of prayer we recite mah tovu ohalekha, “How goodly are your tents.” Every prayer service contains words of modim/thanksgiving; every meal is followed by grace after meals. Jews have a blessing for every aspect of human existence; a spiritual regimen whose goal is to ensure we never ever become dulled to the gifts of our lives. It is not that we are unaware of the underbelly of existence and the dark side of humanity. But we stand firm with an attitude of gratitude: thankful to each other, thankful to God for all the good that surrounds us each day.
Like many here, I will forever remember the feeling of getting my first paycheck as a professional, in my case as an assistant rabbi in Chicago. Growing up, I knew that a generation prior, when my father received his first paycheck as a physician, he wrote it over to his father as a gesture of gratitude, just as his father had done for his parents before him. So when my turn came along, I received that paycheck, signed the back of it, and sent it home to my folks. All things being equal, I imagine my parents weren’t banking on me entering the not-for-profit world, an option that I often remind my children is not for everyone. Nevertheless, the cycle of gratitude and giving was in motion. A few weeks later, I received an envelope back from my dad to discover that he had divided up that check to open up bank accounts for my children, his grandchildren.
All of us should aspire to be givers. No institution does or should rely on me to make their budget; that said, Debbie and I are proud of what we can do. But if, by virtue of my station in life, I can pick up the phone on someone’s behalf, give what wisdom, time, and social capital I have to help someone along the way, I always do. And when I do, to this day I have never regretted making that effort. In fact, I am always strengthened and renewed by having stretched to make this world of ours a bit better by dint of my contribution, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
In just a few weeks, we will stand together as a community on Rosh Hashanah to chant the well-known Unetaneh Tokef – a prayer that reminds us of God’s judgment and our three primary obligations this holiday season. First, teshuvah, to repent and reconcile one with another. Second, tefillah, to pray to God with sincerity and devotion. The third activity, tzedakah, to give, does not make immediate sense. What does the act of giving have to do with the message of these days of judgment? The answer, I believe, lies in an attitude of gratitude. The spiritual accounting of our year gone by is not measured merely by a punch list of our deeds, of rights and wrongs committed. Our year is also measured according to the degree to which we transcend the quotidian burdens of existence and open our eyes to the beauty, goodness and good fortune of our lives; and yes, our success in doing so is signaled by our having a spiritual posture of giving. In simpler terms, it is the act of giving that announces to God and to the world that we are indeed thankful for the blessings of our lives and thus stand ready to enter the year to come.
Some people give time; others, money; others, wisdom; and others, their good name. Nobody but you can determine what resources you give and how you choose to do so, and we should all think twice before making judgments about the private choices others make. But if you want an exercise in self-inventory this holiday season, you don’t need to look further than your own deeds: They are the truest windows into our souls. There is so much in this world for which to be grateful. Whether we choose to see that goodness, be grateful for it, and act on it, that is a choice that belongs to nobody in this world but you.