By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Though we citizens of the new millennium like to think we have rights, we
have much to gain from the realization that what we really have are gifts.
To be sure, those of us privileged to live in enlightened democracies are
granted an assortment of civil rights by our governments. But those rights,
indeed those governments, are not owed us. The vast majority of human
beings over the course of history knew nothing of such gifts, and neither,
unfortunately, do all too many people today.
That nothing we take for granted deserves to be is a deeply Jewish idea. The
word Jew hints as much, derived as it is from the name Judah, which Jewish
tradition roots in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the
beneficiary of "more than my share."
The understanding that nothing is coming to us is what Jewish tradition
calls hakaras hatov, or "acknowledgment of the good". It is a concept much
eroded in our times, a casualty of contemporary society's wealth, comfort
and culture of rights. We fully expect the freedoms we enjoy, virtually
demand shelter, education, a job, health care -- for that matter, health.
The downside of our insensitivity to hakaras hatov is that when the roof is
suddenly removed from over our heads or we unexpectedly find a pink slip
instead of a paycheck - we feel angry and betrayed.
Disappointment would be understandable, of course (though one Talmudic
personality welcomed every turn of fortune, no matter how depressing, with
the conviction "This too is for the good!"). But angry? Anger over
circumstance can only take root when the ground has been prepared for it by
the notion of illusory "rights", when gifts have been taken for granted.
We living organisms are frail creatures. At any given moment our lives
depend on thousands of genetically programmed, incredibly complex biological
I remember when, as a younger man and avid motorcyclist, I first realized
that all that stood between my skin and the 60-mile-an-hour concrete
sandpaper whizzing by below was a flimsy-looking cotter pin, not much
thicker than a heavy-duty paper clip. It alone prevented my Honda's rear
wheel from going off to explore the world on its own.
That feeling is surely familiar to anyone who has ever been seriously ill.
The realization that the presence or absence of a particular blood chemical
or protein or electrolyte can make all the difference between health and
sickness - or life and death - is a potent eye-opener. And it should yield
an incomparable sense of gratitude when everything works as it should, when
we are granted the amazing gift - not right - of health.
A young person once asked a rabbi why G-d bothered to create so immense a
universe when astronomers have only fairly recently become aware of the
extent of its vastness. He replied that only recently has man needed to see
the vast expanses of space - for modernity has infected us with a scientific
hubris, a sense of omniscience. The sight of distant nebulae and the
thought of "thousands of light years," he explained, are precisely what
modern man needs - to afford him the same feeling of awe that a simple,
unaided gaze at the night sky once easily and effectively provided.
Today's increasingly evident auto-immune diseases might be the biological
side of the same coin. Medicine has become so sophisticated that we feel
doctors or drugs can do almost anything, as if we truly control our own
healths. Such self-assurance takes a considerable toll on our awareness of
the miraculous gift of our biology. It dulls our sensitivity to the presence
of the divine in our physical lives. We come perilously close to
worshipping our achievements rather than our Creator.
Enter diseases that do one simple but horrifically significant thing: ravage
the immune system. In other words, they prevent a gift from doing what it
regularly and naturally - if miraculously - does. By crippling the body's
complex natural ability to ward off myriad unseen but dangerous invaders -
routinely repelled by healthy immune systems day in and day out - they wreak
The diseases that result are tragedies, but priceless lessons too. They
remind us that the workings of our bodies are a wondrous gift, and that we
owe boundless gratitude to their Source.
Jewish tradition prescribes the recitation of blessings on many occasions:
the performance of a commandment, the partaking of food or drink, the
enjoyment of a fragrance.
A Jewish blessing, however, that has raised many an eyebrow is the one
recited by observant Jews after leaving the bathroom. It expresses
gratitude for God's having "formed human beings with wisdom," for the gift
of our functioning bodies.
Truly a blessing for our age.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of
America and American director of Am Echad