Gratitude is good and good for you. Researchers have found that recognizing life’s blessings can transform a person’s attitude. Martin Seligman, one of the pioneering researchers in the field of positive psychology, has found that practicing gratitude on a regular basis decreases the incidence of depression and makes people happier. There are many psychologists who practice “gratitude interventions” to improve the mental health of their patients. Gratitude is good for you.
Gratitude is also one of Judaism’s moral foundations. The Torah tells us there is an obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon, grace after meals, and “when you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God.” After each meal, we thank God for the food we have eaten.
The Talmud and the Midrash take this obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon a step further and add other blessings of gratitude. Another blessing is added before eating food as well. We thank God when we are hungry and needy, and we thank God again when we are comfortable and full. Hizkunni says that the redundant Hebrew word et in this verse teaches us that when eating at another’s table, the guest should offer a blessing for the host during Birkat Hamazon. The full text of the “guest’s blessing” is found in the Talmud. The obligation to offer gratitude has many applications.
There are those who argue that faith itself is based on gratitude. Rabbeinu Bachya cites a Midrash that says “anyone who fails to appreciate the gifts they receive from a friend will in the end fail to appreciate the gifts given to him by God.” Authentic thankfulness leads us to appreciate everyone and everything around us. By reflecting on the goodness in this world we come to an appreciation of God. Gratitude is the gateway to godliness.
We teach lessons of gratitude at a very young age, and remind children to always say “thank you.” But because of this, we’re left with an immature understanding of what gratitude is, and think of it as a mere phrase, a quick string of words meant to be charming and sweet. This immature form of gratitude can become an exercise in public relations, more about the person saying “thank you” than the person being thanked. True gratitude is a lot more than an automatic response.
The word gratitude has two meanings: appreciation and thankfulness. Tony Manela, who has written extensively about the philosophy of gratitude, has labeled them “gratitude that” and “gratitude to.” “Gratitude that” is simply appreciating good fortune. One can be grateful that it’s a sunny day, or that one caught the subway just in time. “Gratitude to” is a specific sense of indebtedness, the need to thank someone who has done good for you. When someone provides you with an umbrella on a rainy day or gives you directions on the subway, you owe “gratitude to” the person who helped you.
Gratitude is important psychologically. People who are able to learn how to appreciate the world around them will be happier and more balanced. “Gratitude to” is the focus of philosophers and theologians, who discuss how to define the moral obligation of thanking another for a gift received.
In rabbinic Hebrew, gratitude is called hakarat hatov, “recognizing that which is good.” This phrase underlines that “gratitude to” is actually a two-part process. It is both having a sense of appreciation for the good in our lives and recognizing the benefactor and thanking them. “Gratitude to” almost always includes “gratitude that.” Every time we thank someone, it is because we both appreciate the gift we have received and the kindness of the benefactor. (And in Judaism, “gratitude that” and “gratitude to” are never completely separate. The world is God’s handiwork, and that is why we thank God for every blessing we experience.)
But both appreciation and thankfulness can be very challenging.
True thankfulness is emotionally demanding. People take pride in being self-sufficient and prefer being givers to being takers. “Gratitude to” is humbling. Included in every “thank you” is an admission that the recipient couldn’t do it themselves, that they are lacking and need the help of others.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner notes that the same word in Hebrew, hoda’ah, is used both for the expression of thanks and conceding to another person in an argument. Rabbi Hutner writes, “The explanation for this shared terminology is that within the human heart there is an aspiration to be independent and not to need the help of others. When a person expresses his gratitude to his friend and offers him thanks, at that time he is also offering an admission that he couldn’t do it himself, and that he needed the help of others.”
Gratitude is a confession that you can’t do it on your own. That is uncomfortable. We generally put the self-made man on a pedestal and aspire to be one ourselves. But once we take gratitude seriously, we understand the role parents, teachers, friends and even random chance have had in our achievements. How difficult is the admission that we are indebted to others for almost everything in our lives! Ultimately, the lesson of Rabbi Hutner is that the more we consider what we ought to be grateful for, the more we realize how much our accomplishments belong to others. “Gratitude to” forces us to confront our egos.
“Gratitude that” can be even more challenging, and at times it is absurd. There are instances when life is too bitter to appreciate anything. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who lost his family in the Holocaust, sharply criticized those who asserted that faith is based on gratitude. He found it shocking that people could make this argument after the Holocaust. Rabbi Amital says, “The question is this: After the terrible destruction that occurred during the Holocaust, can one still say that our service of God is built on gratitude for what God does? Is it possible that a Jew who lost his wife and children can serve God on the basis of gratitude? Is a Jew, whose job was to take the burnt bodies out of the ovens in Auschwitz, able to serve God out of gratitude? This is absolutely impossible.”
In this lecture, Rabbi Amital is focused on the structure of belief, and he finds gratitude to be a fickle foundation for faith, one that very much depends on a person’s circumstances. Coincidentally, Rabbi Amital also offers a challenge to our understanding of gratitude. What meaning does gratitude have in a world of misery? How can you be thankful for blessings when life has become a curse? Appreciation makes no sense in the midst of an overwhelming tragedy. It is absurd to offer praise for the goodness of life when life is not at all good.
It is in situations of tragedy that gratitude moves from being an ordinary moral obligation to a heroic act of personal transformation. Usually, we see gratitude as a reflection of the world, a reaction to the goodness that we have experienced. But when there is little for which to offer thanks, gratitude is not a reaction to a beautiful world. It is a vision of future goodness. By sheer force of determination, this type of gratitude magnifies whatever good can be found, and expresses an aspiration to repair a broken world. This is heroic gratitude.
Rabbi Yisrael Gustman was a brilliant Torah scholar who lost his 6-year-old son during the Holocaust. He managed to survive by hiding in the woods. He eventually moved to Israel and started the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva in Rechavia. Outside the yeshivah was a small garden. Every day, Rabbi Gustman would go out to water the plants and tend to the garden. When new students would ask in astonishment why the dean of the yeshivah was doing the gardening, someone would explain to them that Rabbi Gustman insisted on caring for the garden himself because he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the plants and trees for giving him a place to hide from the Nazis and offering him sustenance during the war.
Instead of being a painful reminder of the worst moments in his life, Rabbi Gustman saw the plants and trees in his garden as a symbol of hope. It takes a great deal of optimism to see the good in a forest filled with lurking evil. Offering thanks for the small glimpses of goodness that appear during the worst of times is actually an expression of faith in the possibilities of life. And by thanking the plants and trees, Rabbi Gustman was cultivating a better world for the future.
This is precisely what heroic gratitude is.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.