Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”
It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.
Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.”
This truth may help explain why the theme of recognizing blessing versus curses is so important in last week’s Torah portion, (Parshat Ki Tavo):
- All these maledictions will come upon you; they will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed because you did not obey the Lord your God by keeping the commandments and statutes which he gave you. They shall be a sign and a portent to you and your descendants for ever, because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart for all your blessings. Then in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and extreme want, you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, and they will put a yoke of iron on your neck when they have subdued you. (Deut. 28:45–48)
The absence of joyfulness in our lives leaves us in a perpetual state of misery and want. Yes, attitude has everything to do with our capacity for happiness and self-actualization in life. Nature abhors a vacuum and when we relinquish the positive, it is inevitable that the negative attitudes will take its place.
Psychological studies bear this truth out as well.
Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain.
According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […] Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”
Unfortunately, politicians and the czars of Hollywood love to create and perpetuate the mythos of class-warfare that occurs between the haves and the have-nots. These misleaders try to seduce us into thinking that creaturely comforts hold the key to our inner and spiritual state of mind.
The focus upon negativity and materialism is the end result of such a twisted point of view.
In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset, it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks for whatever the reason, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative. In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism, rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness.
No society in human history has ever been as medicated with anti-depressants such as ours. Yet, developing an attitude of gratefulness can not only make us happier, it can also protect us from heart attacks, lessen physical pain and confer other physiological benefits.
It is no coincidence that the Founding Fathers looked to this week’s Torah portion pertaining to the first-fruits as the antecedent and inspiration for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
For our spiritual and psychological healthiness, we need to be thankful for all that is good in our lives; the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”
Aesop may have made this point even more forcefully:
- Once there was a Dog who had gotten himself a piece of meat and was carrying it home in his mouth to eat it in peace. On his way home, he had to cross a plank lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth, the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more. The moral: Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. — AESOP, Fables, The Dog and the Shadow
When we lose sight of what we have, by grasping after shadows, we risk losing everything we already truly have.
In a strange and paradoxical way, the cartoon character Bart Simpson illustrates the nature of this problem; who was asked to say grace over the meal. He prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!” Does that shock us? It shouldn’t. The world doesn’t have a clue to the essence of Thanksgiving.
What applies to the life of the individual, applies no less to our nation as a whole.
In words that could have been penned today, Abraham Lincoln knew that the need for remembering God in prosperity is imperative for any time, and constituted a requisite for our nation’s integral character and identity.
- We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, for many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self‑sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.‑‑ April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer
WHY BE THANKFUL?
One might wonder: When we look at the evil that engulfs the world with war, famine, and fear, it might seem as though “Thanksgiving” is self-deceiving. Despite the abundance that we have at our tables, it’s also easy to wonder, what should we be thankful for? When we see the ugliness in the world and in our society, it seems like a Herculean task to express happiness and blessing.
Yet, as Rabbi Harold Kushner has pointed out, there’s never been a time in which bad things didn’t happen to good people. Suffering has always been a part of the human condition throughout recorded history.
American history bears this out.
The Pilgrims experienced enough hardship to leave them demoralized. Yet they sat for three days, feasting, rejoicing and grateful for what they had. Rejuvenated, they made it through that first winter, and another, and another . . .
The lesson of this week’s Torah reading is clear; we need to start seeing the cup of life as half-full rather than as half-empty. Rabbinical tradition teaches that there are at least 100 blessings we can say everyday to appreciate the world of blessing that surrounds us. By embracing a life of blessing, we can create prosperity for everyone—but it begins with cultivating a positive attitude.
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