I think that those two words are the most important two words in our language. I often recommend to new parents that these two words become one of the first things that their baby learns to speak.
The idea behind this deceptively simple phrase is the concept of gratitude. Every one of us, no matter how difficult our position in life, has much to be thankful for. And yet, few of us feel thankful, and fewer still express our gratitude to others.
The world would be a much better place if we each could cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”.
There are two factors which make it difficult for many of us to have this attitude and to articulate it.
The first factor is the sense of entitlement that so many of us have, which seems to pervade our contemporary society. We feel that we are owed all that we have, that it is somehow “coming to us”.
We raise our children to believe that all their needs will be provided for and that they need not exert much effort on their own to achieve the necessities and even luxuries of life.
It is no wonder that our children feel no sense of gratitude toward us. No one can appreciate the benefits of life if he or she feels entitled to them.
There is another factor which stands in the way of the “attitude of gratitude”. It is a consequence of the stress our society places upon the value of autonomy. The totally autonomous person is convinced that he is the source of all his achievements and, therefore, is beholden to no one else. The delusion of extreme autonomy becomes translated into that powerful biblical phrase, “It is my strength and the might of my hand that brought about my success”.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, there recurs a frightening litany of phrases: “The Lord will not forgive him.” “The Lord’s anger and passion will rage against him.” “In anger and fury and in great wrath.”
These phrases are nothing less than the Almighty’s reaction to ingratitude. “I have taken you out to Egypt… I have included you in My covenant… I have set before you life and prosperity… that you may thrive and increase…” And yet, you do not thank Me. You are not grateful. You fail to appreciate the blessings I have bestowed upon you.
In these nearly final passages of His Torah, God reserves His harshest scorn for our failure to “count our blessings.” What an important and relevant lesson this is for us today!
How many of us feel, truly feel, gratitude that we live and breathe, that we are healthy, that we live in an affluent and free society, that we have friends and family about us? Quite the contrary. Are we not instead ridden with complaints and petty disappointments?
Gratitude is the very stuff out of which healthy human relationships are made. Grateful children are happy children, and are a delight to raise.
A husband and wife who feel grateful to each other and who express these feelings of thanks are a happily married couple.
Our sense of wonder, so important for a full expression of our humanity, depends upon our gratitude for our natural environment and its beauty. The fact that we take the natural world for granted is the main reason that we abuse it so, ultimately to our own detriment.
The great blessing of possessing good friends is something to be grateful for. And ironically, one earns good friends through mutual expressions of gratitude and thankfulness.
From a religious perspective, gratitude towards God is a confessional statement. By expressing gratitude, we acknowledge that we are limited creatures, dependent upon the Divine, whose support and sustenance we could not survive without. We recognize that one can, in the last analysis, achieve nothing with “one’s own powers and the might of one’s own hands.” Thanking God in prayer or in contemplation is an expression of humility and an acceptance of human limits.
No wonder then that in Hebrew, the word for confession, hoda’ah, is the same as the word for gratitude.
No wonder, too, that the very word which identifies us, “Jew”, derives from the name given by our Matriarch Leah to her son Judah, which she gave him because Judah means thanksgiving.
I remember nodding my head in assent when I listened live on the radio as Isaac Bashevis Singer delivered his Nobel lecture in Stockholm, 1978. Surely one of the greatest masters of the Yiddish language, Singer keenly observed that the Yiddish language is unique not only in its humor, but also in the theme of gratitude which pervades it:
“There is a quiet humor in Yiddish,” Singer told the world, “and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love…”
Well said. But the British poet Thomas Gray perhaps said it even better:
“Sweet is the breath of vernal shower,
The bees collected treasures sweet,
Sweet music’s melting fall, but sweeter yet.
The still small voice of gratitude.”