Some years ago, when I was College Rabbi at Mount Scopus Memorial College, I attended an “Erev Todah”, an Evening of Gratitude, the culmination of a month long unit on the virtue of appreciation by the Year 6’s. For a month they had not only studied about the meaning of gratitude in general and especially in Jewish sources, they had also visited shelters for the homeless and expressed their thanks to the school cleaners by doing some of their work (while the cleaners were treated to pizzas).
They were challenged to keep a diary and focus on the question: ‘How can we increase our gratitude for our world and the people in it, through our words and deeds.’
It’s an excellent question and one that our Tradition encourages us to think about every day. We are supposed to greet the day not with a strong cup of coffee (although that helps!) but with a dose of gratitude: “Modeh Ani Lefanecha…” I am grateful to you God for restoring my soul to me, for giving me the gift of life, the opportunity to have another day in front of me. The daily Amidah has a central component the dimension of thanks as is exquisitely expressed in the Modim prayer: “Thank you …for the miracles of everyday, for the wonders and the good that are with us evening, morning and afternoon…” And this attitude of gratitude begins with prayer but ends with action: the many daily opportunities to express our thanks to those we encounter…
Gratitude is not only positive for the recipient, it also empowers the giver. Studies have shown that expressing gratitude actually improves our health and wellbeing.
It is gratitude that provides a link between last week and this week’s parasha. Behaalotecha ended with the sin of Miriam and Parashat Shelach begins with the sin of the ten spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. Asks Rashi: “Why is this section dealing with the spies juxtaposed with the section dealing with Miriam’s punishment?” He answers that it is to show the seriousness of their sin because Miriam was punished on account of the slander she uttered against her brother and those who witnessed it and yet they did not learn a lesson from her. In other words, Miriam failed to appreciate the special character and status of her brother; Moses and the spies failed to recognise the unique character of the land of Israel.
The spies, as Rav Solaveitchik has suggested, were sent not to gather intelligence, but to explore the land and bring back reports of its singular character. They returned with a banal report of its strengths and deficiencies and a declaration of despair. “With grandeur looking down on them, all they could see was the mundane.” Theirs was a crippling account of ingratitude, a failure to perceive the wonder and the miracles, the promise and the hope that God had placed at their feet. Like Jacob their famous foreb ear they failed to recognize that this land was the ‘house of God’, the ‘gateway to Heaven’ itself.
Gratitude in Hebrew is actually two words, Hakarat (recognising) Hatov (the good), recognising the good opening our eyes to the many blessing and wonders that constantly surround us. It’s an attitude of gratitude that creates practical acts of love and kindness. The Year 6’s not only learnt a lesson for life, they reminded us all of the power of this little virtue.