How does one learn to be grateful to God for what one has? There’s one answer from the 13th century, but if you are a parent it should be a little frightening.
The Torah commands one to respect and have awe for one’s parents. A philosophical question (or the very realistic question of some children) is why? What’s the rationale for this commandment? Rav Shimshon Hirsch (1808-1888), for example, suggests that the family is the basic building block of communal life. The child needs to learn how to act appropriately within this microcosm of limits and responsibilities in order to grow into a mature adult member of society. Home life is the training ground for what’s to come. Alternatively, the Abravanel (1407-1558), offered two other possibilities: we should honor our parents because they have endowed us with talents and abilities that we can use to live our lives and, as well, by respecting our parents we will serve as models for our own children in how to respect us.
But a different rationale is provided by the Sefer HaHinnukh (c. 13th century):
“At the root of this mitzvah lies the thought that it is fitting for a man to acknowledge and treat with lovingkindness the person who treated him with goodness, and he should not be a scoundrel, an ingrate who turns a cold shoulder…It is for a person to realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world; hence in truth it is proper for him to give them every honor and every benefit that he can, since they brought him into the world and then, too, labored through many troubles over him in his early years.”
In other words, we need to respect our parents because we owe them for our very existence and upbringing. As such, we are commanded to be grateful to them. Honoring them is our way of saying thanks. Nice.
Now here’s the frightening part:
“When he sets this quality firmly in his character, a person will rise from this to recognize the goodness of God, blessed is He, who is the primary Cause of his existence and the existence of all his forebears, back to Adam, the first man. And he will realize that He brought him forth into the light of day, provided for his needs all his days [on earth]…Then let him reckon in his mind how very, very right it is for him to take care about serving and worshipping Him, be He blessed.”
In other words, how we come to see the role of our parents in our lives will have a direct impact on how we come to see the role of God in our lives! How we perceive our parents’ authority and love can have a direct relationship with how we come to perceive God’s authority and love. Apparently there is some truth to the popular saying that “He thought his father was God.” How your child looks at you could well end up being how he understands God.
Indeed, there is actually some social science research to back this up. Theorists suggests that there is a “correspondence” between how one is attached to one’s parents and how one is attached to God. People’s conceptions of God, positive or negative, can often be traced to their positive or negative conceptions of their parents when they were younger. Even children not brought up in a faith community had concepts of God and these concepts strongly related to images of and relationships with their parents. “The parent-child relationship, it seems, is key to understanding children’s experiences of God as loving, powerful, caring, nurturing, punishing, close or distant.” (Granqvist & Dickie, 2006) This clearly has huge implications for religious parenting. In a child’s eyes, being a parent can actually be like playing God.
For our purposes here, however, we can learn much from the association between gratitude to one’s parents and gratitude to God. If we want our children to be grateful to God, to “count their blessings,” to daven in order to offer thanks, then we need to inculcate that sense of gratitude in our family lives.
How we do that is something I would love to hear from you about. Perhaps it is something worth talking about at a Thanksgiving or Shabbat meal; how can we all become a more grateful family? How can we be more grateful in our personal lives? With one another? With friends? What does a grateful person look like compared to one who is not? And as for God, I recently posted a sign in my classroom that says it all: “What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you thanked God for today?”
In the meantime, it simply behooves us all to recall as a first step that the Sefer HaHinnukh seems to be saying that being thankful to God is a supreme value. And, indeed, it should be, for it speaks to the essence of what it means to be a Jew. When Yaakov’s wife Leah gives birth to a fourth son, she is overwhelmed with gratitude: “She conceived again, and bore a son and said ‘This time let me thank (odeh) God’ and she named the child Yehudah.” (Beresihit 29:35) Yehudah or Judah, thus derives from the word for gratitude and Yehudah/Judah is of course the derivation of the name yehudi or Jew. To be a Jew means to give thanks. Before we consider how to teach our children to be thankful, then, we need to first remind ourselves.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.