The ancient Jewish teachings of the Mishna teach us the way to achieve happiness in one sentence, which in Jewish fashion, starts with a question: “Who is rich[contented]? One who is happy with his lot.” Happiness, my friends, is a state of mind that is reached through one thing alone: Gratitude.
Gratitude is the means through which we discipline ourselves to appreciate what we have now and in the moment. Gratitude is our testament of faith whereby we acknowledge that things are happening FOR us, not TO us. Instead, most of us grumble as we go and imagine all the things we think we need, with the uncorroborated hopes that they will make us happier. When we live in gratitude instead of “baditude,” we focus on what we have, we value our lot, instead of pouring destructive energy into what we lack. As the expression goes: “Where focus goes, energy flows.”
Unfortunately, an even more popular sentence starts with, “I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, BUT….” There is always a “but.” In Hebrew, the word aval, BUT, is spelled the same as the word mourning. The but allows us to pivot to sadness and complaints.
When we live with gratitude, there are no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts”! And that is why the first thing a Jew says every morning before getting out of bed is, “Thank You.” This 12-word Hebrew prayer “Modeh Ani” inverts normal syntax and loosely translated starts with, “Thank You, I.” The “thanks” comes before the “I.” Living in gratitude is living in faith and it is transformative.
Modern studies prove this to be true. If we make sincere gratitude, ritual gratitude, a daily practice, we can increase our happiness and even improve our health. Gratitude reduces cortisol in the body, reduces depression, improves relationships, and improves productivity and loyalty in employees. It also has a pay-it-forward impact. Whereas misery loves company, gratitude is a creative force that illuminates the world and realigns it.
It’s interesting that in Hebrew the word for thank you is todah, when those same letters are permuted, they spell the word dotah which means “illness.” When we are unthankful, we are like an emotionally sick person and we separate ourselves from the Source of life and abundance. For certain the ungrateful among us eat themselves up alive and make themselves sick.
Being thankful and grateful is not only a state of mind; it has to be reflected in actions. We have to think thanks and also speak it and do it! And so, in this week’s Torah reading, Moses tells the Israelites that when they come to the Promised Land, they are to bring the first-ripened fruits and declare gratitude for all that G‑d has done for them. Giving thanks reminds us that we are not responsible for our success. Gratitude is a life-enhancing holy lens through which to view the world and the part we play in it.
And though today there is no Temple to which we can bring fruits, we can and must still express our gratitude. We can do this by giving charity (ten to 20 percent of our incomes), by praying every day to G-d for all we have and all we are, by doing mitzvot, and by saying thank you to the people we interact with in our lives. Modern day people might be inclined to roll their eyes when they hear that King David advocated saying 100 blessings a day, i.e., phrases of thanks, to ward off a plague. Today, science shows that practicing gratitude rewires our brains and keeps us healthy.
Both personally and professionally, I’ve known too many people who have a “use them and abuse them” mentality. They take what they can from us, even from G-d, and when our usefulness expires, they kick us to the curb. These thankless people may regard themselves as geniuses in their game of life, but the Torah regards them as Pharaohs, as arrogant enemies of Hashem. People are the vessels through which G-d delivers His blessings. If you treat people badly, you treat G-d badly.
We read in the Torah about Joseph’s death, and how “a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” This is the Joseph who made the country rich and saved it from ruin. This is the famous Joseph, with a coat of many colors, who we all still know about thousands of years later. Yet, somehow, Pharaoh just couldn’t seem to remember him. After all, remembering comes with a heavy price – we might have to say, “Thank you.” Instead, the new Pharaoh showed his gratitude by enslaving Joseph’s people and descendants and embittering their lives. The consequence? G-d smashed Pharaoh and his people.
In contrast, the Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the suffering which the Egyptians caused the Israelites over their long years of slavery, the Torah commands us, “You shall not hate an Egyptian.” Why not? We are not permitted to despise them because they once hosted us in a time of need. We were once sojourners in their land. If we are not permitted to hate those who tormented us because they were once good to us, imagine how much more we owe those who were good to us! And how much gratitude we owe to G-d most of all!
There are many other examples in the Torah which offer us sensitivity training about appreciation: Moses would not strike the waters of the Nile and turn them to blood because those waters had saved his life when he was a baby.
It is only when we are in a perpetual state of gratitude that our best blessings are yet to come. The Talmud teaches that the Divine presence will not rest on a person in a state of sadness. Gratitude is a fundamental of Judaism. In fact, the term “Yehudi”– Jew, comes from the Hebrew name Yehuda, which means thanks and gratitude. It is thus from the tribe of Yehuda that the Mashiach will come.
Change your mind, change your find! If you’re grateful you can be happy now. Put on your rose colored glasses and give life a new look!