by Rabbi Berel Wein
One of the cardinal principles of Judaism is gratitude – the necessity and ability to say thank you. Someone who is kafuy tova – unappreciative of what he or she has and ungrateful to the extreme - is deemed to be a sinner, if not in deed certainly in attitude. The Talmud in its inimitable fashion states that a living person should always refrain from complaint – it is sufficient that one is still alive for gratitude to be present and expressed.
Jews begin their day with two words – modeh ani - I acknowledge and thank You God for having given me the gift of life once more as I awake to the new day. A general attitude of gratitude and thanks makes living life easier and simpler, even in the face of obstacles, problems and severe difficulties. The person who is able to appreciate and thank others is more optimistic. That person will always see the glass as being half full. There will be greater appreciation for what one has and less jealousy and angst over what one does not have.
In our competitive, materialistic, market driven society there seems to be little room for expressions of gratitude. But the Torah and all of Jewish tradition and its value system demand that we be grateful and thankful, not only in attitude but in our words and deeds as well. The importance of this concept is something that should be inculcated within our children and grandchildren from the time of their earliest ages. One of the earliest phrases or words that a child should learn is “thank you.”
There is another value in Jewish life that sometimes contributes to the opposite result than what I have described above. That value is that one should always attempt to be independent and never be beholden to others for their help and charity. As such, if one is forced to somehow accept help and favors from others, a feeling of internal resentment wells up within that person. That resentment is often mistakenly focused outwards towards the very benefactor that was of aid and assistance. Whatever feeling or expression of gratitude that results - which is a necessary Torah requirement - is muted if not completely discarded.
I have witnessed this ironic phenomenon many times in my lifetime. I am aware of fundraisers for Torah institutions who feel no gratitude towards donors who somehow contribute less than the amount that the fundraiser asked for or expected. I always attempted to emulate my great mentor in fund raising, Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rav. He would say thank you to every donor with the same fervor and sincerity, no matter what amount of money was actually donated. He would quote the Talmudic dictum regarding judicial conduct and courtroom procedure: “The litigation case for even a penny has the same judicial requirements attached to it as does the litigation regarding ten thousand coins of the realm.” He would say that this rule is not limited to judicial behavior and court litigation but that it applies equally to donors and fundraisers. The attitude of gratitude must always be present and must always find expression in actual words and deeds.
There are many lessons in life that one must learn and many character traits that require training and development. Just as one must learn to give graciously, with a smile and a good word and wish, so too must one learn that in life one will unavoidably have to take as well. This too should be done with a smile and a good word and best wishes.
As children, we oftentimes display resentment at gifts that were given to us that did not meet our wants or expectations. But mature adult Torah behavior should not allow for this attitude or behavior. This type of non-gracious acceptance disrupts marriages and family life. It makes professional life and positive interaction with others difficult and problematic. There are people who are misers in giving. There are others who are misers in their gratitude for blessings and gifts.
Those who find it difficult to say thank you to other human beings for their help will also find it difficult to say thank You to God for the gift of life and all that accompanies that gift. We become accustomed to gifts and kindnesses extended to us and take them for granted. Only when they are no longer there do we begin to appreciate their value and importance. The wise person will learn to say thank you while those gifts, persons and situations are still present among us.
Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Wein