Why is it Easy to Thank God and Hard to Thank Other People?

This past week, the entire country celebrated a holiday revolving around a wonderful character trait:  gratitude.  In his ethical work, Hovot Halevavot, Bahya Ibn Pakuda argued that gratitude is a religious imperative to our relationship with God and each other.  It would seem to me that for men and women of faith, gratitude towards God and gratitude towards each other stem from the same source.  I therefore wonder, why is it sometimes so much easier to say thank you to God than to say thank you to each other?

Rav Hutner notes that the phrase in the shemona esrei, “Modim anachnu lach,” doesn’t literally mean “we thank you;” rather, it means “we admit to you.”  The reason why these words, thankful and admission, are identical in Hebrew is because our ability to give thanks is based on our ability to admit that we are deficient and in need.  Perhaps it is easier for us to admit to God, and to ourselves, that we are deficient and in need of God’s help, but harder to admit that we are in need of help from our fellow man.  Thus, whereas we can fully thank God, we may not as readily allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to express gratitude to others.

Additionally, the story of Rachel and Leah in last week’s parsha may also shed some light as to why we don’t express our gratitude often enough.  After Yehuda was born, Leah named him Yehuda, stating, “This time I will give thanks to God.”  Why doesn’t she express gratitude after any of her first three children are born?  After each of her first three children are born, she names the children with the hope that her husband will love her more, but it seems that by the fourth child, she comes to the realization that her husband may never love her the way he loved Rachel, but she is grateful for what God gave her, that she had the opportunity to be a mother.  Leah’s gratitude towards God reflected a change in perspective as to that which she should be grateful.

But still, Leah is not grateful to Rachel for allowing her to be a co-wife with Yaakov even though Yaakov loved Rachel more.  Rabbi David Fohrman explained that when Rachel asks Leah for the flowers that her son Reuven picked, Rachel was not interested in the flowers; she was interested in something that a young boy picked.  She was interested in motherhood.  Leah then snapped back at Rachel telling her, “Is it enough that you took my husband?  Now do you want to take the flowers of my child?”  Leah is upset that she is unloved by Yaakov because of Rachel, but Leah doesn’t realize how Rachel is feeling.  Rachel was supposed to be the wife of Yaakov and the mother of his children, but she is unable to realize motherhood while watching her sister enjoy that blessing.  Leah does not appreciate how much Rachel has been struggling.

When Yehuda was born, Leah said, “Now I will thank God.”  She changed her perspective vis-à-vis God, but she didn’t change her perspective vis-à-vis Rachel.  She understood that sometimes we just don’t understand what God does to us and for us so we should be grateful for the blessings that God gives us and have faith in God for what we don’t understand.  But she had trouble giving Rachel the benefit of the doubt until she changed her perspective as well, until she put herself in her sister’s shoes, until she truly tried to understand where her sister was coming from, until she had a difficult, meaningful conversation with her to fully understand her position.

If we want to live life more gratefully, the first step is to be open to changing our perspective, to be more curious and less judgmental and cynical, to search harder for the blessings that we have been given by others and to appreciate how much they have struggled to grant us these blessings.

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