Happiness may not lead to gratitude but gratitude certainly leads to happiness

At the school where I work, during the 9th grade student orientation, the associate principal emphasized to the students that it is a privilege to come to this school.  Not simply a requirement or even an opportunity, but a privilege.  The message really resonated with the students, and indeed, it provides a powerful perspective.

At the end of last week’s parsha, Moshe tells the Bnei Yisrael in gory and gruesome detail that they will be punished for not listening to the word of God and then he provides a deeper reason – “tachat asher lo avad’ta et Hashem Elokecha b’simcha u’v’tuv levav mai’rov kol” – because we didn’t serve God with happiness with the goodness of our heart from so much everything?  What does that exactly mean?

The truth is that Moshe discusses the concept of happiness at the beginning of the parsha when he describes the bikkurim ritual.  After we thank God for taking us out of Egypt and bringing us to Eretz Yisrael where we can grow fruit, the first of which we bring to the Temple, the Torah states “v’samachta b’chol hatov asher natan lekha Hashem Elokecha” – and you will be happy with all the good that Hashem your God gave you.  If, indeed, we are happy with the fruit that we have harvested and collected, then shouldn’t the sequence of events be that we are first happy and then we perform the bikkurim gratitude ritual?  Why do we first perform the ritual and only then are happy?  And what are we happy about?

I was listening to a Ted talk by a Benedictine Monk name David Steinl-Rast, who made the following argument:  People may think that first we are happy and then we express gratitude for our happiness, but that is incorrect.  First, we express gratitude; first, we live gratefully, and if we express gratitude and if we live gratefully, only then are we happy.  In short, gratitude is the key to happiness.  And that is exactly what the Torah tells us, that first we express gratitude by performing the bikkurim gratitude ritual and then v’samachta b’chol hatov – and then we are happy.  And why are we happy?  R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that we are happy not because of what we received, but we are happy since God gave it to us.  We are happy with whatever God gives us specifically because He gave it to us.  We are happy because everything is good – Kol hatov – because it is God who gives it to us.  The Torah tells us that God blessed Avraham “ba’kol” and Yaakov announced to Esav, “Yesh li kol.”  Avraham was blessed with believing that he had everything and Yaakov announced that he believed he had everything and the bikkurim ritual is an attempt to achieve that state of mind.

David Steinl-Rast explained that grateful living is believing that every moment is a gift because it’s an opportunity.  Sometimes it’s easy to understand what the opportunity is and sometimes it’s a little more difficult to understand what that opportunity is.  Sometimes when God places challenges in front of us, it is still an opportunity, maybe an opportunity for us to develop the character trait of patience, or the strength and conviction to stand up for that in which we believe.

And that is exactly what Moshe explains to the Bnei Yisrael at the end of last week’s parsha.  He tells them that they will be punished if they don’t serve God with happiness despite the fact that “mai’rov kol,” despite the fact that there is so much “kol” – so much of everything that we need but we fail to sense this because we don’t live gratefully.  If we do not live gratefully, then we are not happy and we blame God and we blame other people for our lives and unfortunately it can lead to a Godless and corrupt society.

We sin when we do not live a life of bikkurim and that is why my Associate principal told our students that you should realize that going to this school is a privilege, because we want to strengthen a culture of gratitude in our school, which in turn will create an even happier culture in our school.

Many of us have a lot of reasons to be nervous.  Many of us are watching the escalating situation between North Korea and the United States with much alarm and no seeming solution in sight. Many of us may face illness and other health challenges, financial challenges and shalom bayit challenges.   There’s a lot to be nervous about and a lot to complain about.  And maybe our hard work during Elul as we prepare for the High Holidays is to try to live a life a bikkurim, to live a little more gratefully, to follow in the footsteps of Avraham and Yaakov where we believe that we have everything, everything is good, because God gave it to us and we start cherishing and being grateful for every opportunity that God presents us.  It may be hard, but it will make us so very happy and isn’t that what we ultimately want?

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.