Gratitude

I

I noticed that there are two types of middos — intransitive and transitive. I mean those terms in the grammatical sense: Intransitive middos have no object, no specific target. Sadness is what I would call an intransitive middah, as it’s a state of mind rather than part of a relationship with another. Transitive ones express an attitude toward an object. Something close to a transitive version of sadness is disappointment; we don’t get sad at someone, but we can be disappointed in them.

Admittedly the line gets blurry when one discusses a transitive middah but it’s about the relationship between me and myself. Is frustration with oneself really transitive? But we do feel a subtle difference when frustrated with ourselves and frustrated with “the universe”, with no specific target.

A second distinction I would like to draw before plunging into the topic of gratitude is that between perceptions and responses. We do not respond to the world, we respond to how we perceive the world. A while back I wrote about the conflict in psychological circles about the origins of our personalities, the famous debate of “nature vs. nurture”. I asked what room either option (or both) would leave for free will. I noted that if one takes the “nurture”, i.e. the environment side, one is assuming that people respond to the world, not respond to the word as we choose to see it. Like the famous picture that looks either like a beautiful young woman or her cronish mother (see the earlier entry for the picture), we choose how we see the world.

We can choose to be frustrated with a child not following our directions, or challenged by the lack of language comprehension or organization skills that we still need to teach them. The choice is ours. Perhaps not while “in the moment”; the arena in which we are conflicted enough for the process to require conscious internal debate. As Rav Dessler would put it, our bechirah point may be elsewhere at this moment in our lives. But we can develop our middos with regard to our perception and change them in the long run.

Based on that perception, we respond. Often outwardly, but always there is an internal reaction. Anger is a response. The perception leads to frustration, frustration to anger.

Looking at gratitude, I am tempted to take some of the more discussed middos and break them down into a perception component and a response component. But I do not know if the generalization works. Does the term “ka’as” similarly refer only to the response, the way the word “anger” does (as I used it above)? There are so many different elements to anger, not all of which necessarily in play each time (frustration, blame, an egotistical expectation that I should be getting my way, etc…) , that I am inclined to believe that it is actually only about the common element in the response. But I am still unsure.

II

In the case of gratitude, there is certainly both an element of perception and of response.

The perception, in turn, also has two elements: Intransitive and transitive. In this section, I want to look at these two elements of the perception of gratitude.

I can feel grateful for having this apple. I have hakaras hatov, literally, a recognition of the good that is before me. I am happy because I have something to enjoy.

Then, I can turn it into a transitive feeling, going beyond being grateful for what I have, to look at who I am receiving from. I make a berakhah, I thank the One Who made this apple possible.

Similarly, when I say Modeh Ani, the prayer contains both elements: I am aware of the gift a new day is, having new opportunities. Then I thank Hashem for giving me that beautiful and precious thing that is a day.

Within the hakaras hatov aspect of the perception, looking at what good we have in our lives, we can be aware of the same good thing in more or less detail. We can be grateful for the apple. Or, we can be grateful that Hashem made it possible for people to plant the tree, sell it to the wholesaler, provide the means for an open market in apples, all the many elements that go into my wife finding it in a store display, her loving me and wanting me to have something to enjoy and eat healthier, and her buying it for me. Notice how, by spelling out the detail, one realizes more fully the greatness of the tov. The closer we look, the larger it looms.

This is a primary lesson in meseches Berakhos. The gemara has discussions for dozens of pages over which berakhah to make on what food. Why? Does our thanks for a banana really depend on whether we thank Hashem calling it the fruit of a tree, or whether we recognize that a banana “tree” is a perennial, and therefore we should thank Him for “the fruit of the ground”? I think that’s just the point — the attention to detail is critical. Without it, one can not fully recognize the good Hashem does for us.

Along with recognizing the full extent of the good we receive is acknowledging that there is a provider.

This is a central theme of Sukkos. On Sukkos we relive the Exodus, we again live in huts to commemorate the huts (man made or clouds) that we had in the desert. The Exodus was the one time in human history where all of man’s needs were provided for supernaturally, in a manner obviously of the “Hand” of G-d. My Sukkah is a reminder that the safety provided by my home is no less from Hashem than that experience was. And that our thanks to Hashem must be no less than theirs. This is why Sukkos is Chag haAsif, a fall harvest festival, involving the plants of Israel at a time when people are bringing crops in before the rainy season. It is not “kokhi ve’otzem yadi — my strength, and the might of my hand”. My success had a Provider.

Rabbi Ari Zivitofsky once mailed me a reprint of an article of his which reinforces this point. When we entered Israel with Yehoshua, we did so at the Yardein. The first plant we encountered were the “willows of the river”, as the Torah describes aravos. Next, we get to Yericho, the “city of date palms”, and Hashem provides a miracle to enable us to conquer it. Then, under Yehoshua, the people spread out through the central plain, where the fragrant bushes including hadasim grow. Last, toward the end of Yehoshua’s life and through the period of the Judges, we start settling along the Mediterannian coast, among the esrogim and other citrus fruit. Thus, while not all of the four species are crops, they are very much a reminder to be grateful. By holding the four species, are reminded of Hashem giving us the land and its flora.

III

And the number of things to be grateful for our countless.  We are currently discussing the shidduch crisis on Areivim, and someone who already told our chevrah that they got married much older than they had originally planned wrote, “I still feel like bentshing gomel when I read articles like this…”

But in truth, those of us who should bentch gomel (make the berakhah thanking G-d for a lifesaving event) are those of us who found our mates while still teens, and didn’t have any years of worry and distress. Every time I hear of someone making a se’udas hoda’ah (thanksgiving meal / party) for getting cured or for this close call or that, I thank Hashem for saving me from even needing a yeshu’ah. Every time my child crosses the street and there were no hidden cars, I got a bigger berakhah than that of the neighbor who thanked G-d that their son healed.

I learned this lesson the hard way.

A number of years ago, my daughter fell off a cliff onto a bed of rocks. Through Hashem’s Grace, she was given a clean bill of health not three months later; the broken bones rewoven, the torn tissue healed, and no permanent damage (b”H and ba”h). So, my wife an I made a Qiddush. But what about every child who ever day doesn’t fall off a cliff? Every time we cross the street, and no car comes turning around the corner?

Think how many things go right every day that we so take for granted we don’t think to thank Hashem and other people for providing. Of course, without the stories of close calls and repaired problems, we wouldn’t be able to. Who could possibly imagine everything that could have gone wrong, but didn’t?

In my career doing technology for financial firms, some part of the job — sometimes more, sometimes less — is a support role. To keep things running. I find that aspect of the business frustrating. Yes, sometimes support means adding a new system, making sure the program runs on the new upgrade, ramping up for handling more volume. But much of support is an attempt to be invisible. A trader wants to think about trading, and everything about the software, machines, and the staff who provide them to him should be as transparent as possible. If there is a problem, they’ll notice — usually quite heatedly. But when you’re succeeding, you should be unnoticable.

I was thinking (and this is the whole reason for updating this post) that this might be the a major point of the second berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei. The berakhah is titled by its authors “Gevuros“, that it speaks of Hashem’s Might, and if we take the word with all its connotations from Qabbalah, His “self-restraint”, the might it takes to hold firm. The body of the blessing, though, is about how Hashem repairs things that go wrong, how He consistently saves us. The phrase “mechayeh meisim — revives the dead” appears repeatedly, including in the closing. Also, “someikh nofelim — supports the fallen”, “rofei cholim — heals the sick”, “matir assurim — releases captives”.

In Ashirah Lashem, I focus on how gevurah is the self-restraint a parent excercises when teaching their baby how to walk. There is a strong desire to step in and catch the child, hold her hands and keep her from falling. However, in order to become an independent person, she has to be able to walk on her own. The parent’s gevurah is a greater kindness than following our loving instincts. So too, Hashem lets us mess up and cause problems in our lives.  And so, tied to gevurah is this notion of repair — keeping us autonomous, but also making sure that we only remain with our problems in the ways He wishes us to.

However, there is another aspect to it that came to me thanks to this discussion. Without Hashem allowing us to have these close calls and noticing Him save us from them, we would be unable to appreciate everything else, all the times He stepped in to allow our lives to run smoothly. One might think that in the ideal world everything runs smoothly. But then, Hashem (like technical support) would largely be invisible. It’s only the times He shows restraint and only afterwards saves us that allow us to occasionally notice our dependcy on Him even during the other, easier, times.

IV

Why is this way of perceiving the world, to be grateful for everything we get, so difficult? To draw on Rav Shimon Shkop’s thought (introduction to Shaarei Yosher):

[I]in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” – even if from the Hand of the Holy One! – if the present is unearned.

From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.” In my opinion, this is true despite all the evil and sin that the world is full of because of this middah of self-love. Added to the challenge of wealth, this middah will cause him to stumble until the depths, as it is written, “Lest I grow full and deny.” Because of the greatness of a person’s attachment to his own qav, if Hashem graced him with wealth, and he believes with complete true faith that everything is the Holy One’s, he is in truth poor. What he has isn’t his. However, if he denies G-d, then it is all his and he is in his own mind truly wealthy. Therefore, to satisfy his desire to enjoy his wealth, he will habituate himself to deny G-d, and then his error is complete. …

How could we not take things for granted? How could we plan our actions, to be autonomous creative beings, if we couldn’t plan based on expecting things to go as usual? Our need to be people requires shoving things not under our control to the mental background, and to focus on and take pride in that which we can produce. To create, we need to love ourselves and what we create.

This in turn explains why Chag haAsif, Sukkos as the holiday of gratitude, is also “Zeman Simchaseinu“, our period of greatest joy. Rav Shimon, continued:

With this one can explain what is said, “Yismach Mosheh… Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” There is no joy in receiving a bit of wisdom unless he is a reliable servant who possesses nothing, that it is all his Master’s. Only then there is complete joy in acquiring wisdom. Without this [attitude] it is possible that there is no happiness in acquiring wisdom, for it through it he is capable of defending to heresy.

Only through being grateful can we handle being recipients with simchah, with joy.

There are a number of entries on the topic of simchah, relating the contentment-happiness of “Who is wealthy? One who is samei’ch with his lot” and the need to be an idealist in order to properly see one’s lot in life and its value. Thus, “uleyishrei leiv simchah — the straight-of-heart have simchah“. And only the yishrei leiv have gratitude, can overcome the need for it to be his qav, because it’s the goal that matters.

V

When it comes to responses, gratitude engenders two kinds of changes in how we relate to the one who provided for us.

The first I would call shib’ud. This is the shif’il conjugation of the root that gives us avodah (work, service) and eved (servant). Shif’il is an Aramaic conjugation, borrowed here into Mishnaic Hebrew, meaning a minor servitude. In modern terms, since that metaphor no longer resonates, we would use fiscal language – indebtedness.

Shib’ud is a good response, in that it shows a real hakaras hatov. However, it is suboptimal — good, not great. Shib’ud is the setting up of a favor bank, and trying to keep one’s balance in the positive. After all, if I can repay someone’s favor, I am a self-made person again, my self-love unthreatened. The qav is mine, I paid for it!

However, a superior response is “todah“. First, to return again to the introduction to Shaarei Yosher:

Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of love for others are like competing co-wives one to the other, we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level. The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?”

In the ideal, I can acknowledge what I receive from others because I can realize that they are not outside of my “I”. We are parts of a single greater whole.

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote a few years ago:

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a, as more reliably recorded in the Ein Yaaqov), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

We are called Yehudim because only the descendants of the Kingdom of Judea returned after the Babylonian Exile, and of those tribes, Yehudah’s perspective dominated. We are Jews because, as Leah said upon naming her son, “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem — this time, I will thank G-d”. To be a Jew is to be a thanker, to acknowledge the connection.

Note that this implies a strong connection between Yom Kippur as a day of vidui, and Sukkos, the holiday of hoda’ah and consequent simchah. Vidui leads to an awareness of my role as a contributor in the greater whole, from which follows hoda’ah, an awareness of all I gain as being part of that whole. And knowing that one lives for a greater good is the key to simchah, happiness in the sense of contentment with one’s lot and role in life.

And this is why the founding of what would become the Jewish People had to be with an Exodus-like experience, leading us to hakaras hatov for our Creator and from there to true hoda’ah and areivus as one community.

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