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  • Writer's pictureRachel Shifra Tal

Turning on Gratitude

Turning on Gratitude

According to many studies, it is easier to be unhappy that to be happy. It is easier to complain than to express gratitude. Yet the majority of people are governed by their deep desire to feel content and are ever pursuing that elusive feeling of happiness.

Some of this elusive thing called happiness is unattainable because, a pessimist would say, you need to have realistic expectations. I hear that.

I actually gave up many years ago on the idea of happiness. NO! Do not worry, you will like it.

Instead, I decided that moments of intense satisfaction, and hence gratitude, would suffice.

What does the Torah say? This should be a kneejerk reaction to all of us. We all know the Buddhist joke about Mendel. He travelled to the deepest inner sanctum of the Buddhist religion and asked for an audience with the Dali Lama himself! Upon seeing the Dali Lama, he had just one question. Give me please some pearls of wisdom! The Dali Lama replied, “Your mother said, ‘Mendel, come home!’” This is a joke; however, it is actually from a true story! I was incredibly lucky to hear the story from the man it happened to firsthand, it is also recorded in a Hanoch Teller book.

This man, not actually named Mendel, travelled to the far Tibet (When the Dali Lama was still there) and got one of the much sought-after audiences with the Dali Lama. Upon asking for words of advice, the Dali Lama asked him about his background. He said he was Jewish, but not religious. The Dali Lama leaned forward and looked him directly in the eye and what he said, changed the course of this man’s life forever. He said to him, “What are you doing here? You have such a rich and beautiful people, land and heritage, why are you here?”

Shaken and shocked this man returned home to Israel, landed in Aish Hatorah Yeshiva, and delved into the Jewish texts, he has never come up for air. Sitting across from me at a meal in the old city, surrounded by his sons and daughters and lovely wife he told me this story. At that time, I was a backpacker travelling the world. I sat there spellbound. I asked him what he felt at in that moment. His answer was profound (my new word, to replace epic)! He said that he was shocked that he had travelled across the world seeking another religion before having an in-depth look at the one right here in his backyard! This is the human condition, we seek that which is far and wide and outside of us, yet the answers are usually within. As a backpacker travelling the globe, this so resonated with me, here I was across the world and was finding myself, the same self I took with me!

Sometimes the journey of thousands of miles, ends right within our own hearts. For some, they do not need the travel part. I am totally in need of the travel! But the destination is within.

There is a beautiful parable of a poor man who dreams of tremendous riches under a bridge in a far away kingdom. He uses his last pennies to make the arduous journey to this bridge, upon arriving a guard stops him just before he is about to dig. You cannot dig here! What do you think you are doing? The poor man tells him of the dream, begging to be allowed to continue to dig. The guard laughs at him for coming all this way and says he too had a dream, that in a pauper’s house under the stove was a gigantic treasure. The poor man is turned back and on his long journey home he realizes exactly where the treasure was! Under his stove! Lo and behold, it was!

What is the secret to moments of deep satisfaction and joy? Gratitude. But how can we tap into this incredible resource?

The guilt movement, that is what I am calling it, almost destroyed true gratitude with two words: “At least.” People say “So you lost your job, at LEAST you have your health! You should be grateful for what you have.” This is a tragedy and has caused people to cringe at the word, gratitude.

The expression Hakarat HaTov does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. There, the term for thanksgiving/gratitude is Hodah/Todah/Hoda’ah/Modeh all from the root letters of the word Vov, Daled, Hei.

The beautiful thing is that this root word means thanksgiving; and also, to acknowledge, to admit.

Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours.

In the Torah, when Moses brought the plagues onto Egypt, he was not the one who initiated turning the Nile River into blood and bringing frogs from the river. His brother Aaron invoked those plagues. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that since the river had protected Moses when he was an infant, he could not start a plague against it. God was teaching Moses a powerful lesson in gratitude: we can act with gratitude even to inanimate objects.

It is an established Jewish practice to recite 100 blessings a day. The term for "blessing" in Hebrew is bracha, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for "knee." When you say a blessing, it is as if you have bent your knee in an act of gratitude.

This is actually an awesome place to start discovering gratitude. Davening. At least once a week I like to read all the Hebrew prayers I say in English, including bentching (grace after meals) and the Tehillim (Psalms). I understand 60-70 percent of the Hebrew yet reading in English helps me really connect to what I am saying. On one of these English days, I started to pay close attention to how many things we thank GD for before the Shemonah Esrei and personal parts of the prayers. WOW! Incredible! And if you daven three times a day, you say nearly 100 brachas as part of your daily life.

The morning starts with, “Thank you GD for returning my soul to me!” Mic drop right there!

Thank you for my eyes, for not making me a slave, for taking me out of Egypt……and on and on and on! GD totally does not need this run down every day from us at how astounding GD is! We do!

Being grateful does not take away the struggles and the challenges, yet it sheds a different light on them. One of my favorite lectures is by Rabbi Zeldman about gratitude, I will place a link to it at the end of this. I tried his challenge! Everything changed! You know the one, where you write down on a piece of paper what you are grateful for. Then he challenged you to add five more things each day! What an exercise! At first, it was such a struggle after I wrote down the obvious (the fact that they were obvious was its own sort of gratitude!) then as the days went by, where the earlier thanks were, “thank you GD for my eyes, teeth….” they expanded to such depth! “Thank you, GD, for the ability to look someone in the eye and connect to their soul, thank you for letting me see color and not just one color!!!!” The list is endless! Each moment of each second of every day there is literally a thousand things that make that moment possible!

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