By Rabbi Michael Schwab
The great Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” This statement, in fact, reflects a very Jewish sentiment that we would be wise to consider seriously. Gratitude, in fact, underlies our very belief system. At the core of our tradition is faith in God. One of the implications of such a belief is that if God is our creator, the natural endowments and blessings we received at birth are not a credit to us, but to our Maker. The gift of our intelligence was not our doing. The physical prowess we may have been born with, endowed by another source. Our creativity, a blessing we received. We can choose to cultivate our gifts, or ignore them. We can use them for good, or for evil. Therein lies the measurement for a life well lived. However, the existence of so many blessings in our lives, including the physical world in which we live, cannot be credited to us. Such a realization should lead one to appreciation – to a sense of gratitude for our lives.
Our great teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the principal characteristic of religious life is a sense of wonder. This posture toward the world is an attempt to cultivate a way of seeing and relating to all of Creation. Wonder broadens our awareness to include concerns beyond the self. It pushes us to be attentive to the quiet call of God asking us to enter into partnership for the betterment of the world. Wonder keeps aflame our awareness of what Heschel refers to as “the great fellowship of all beings.” And religious wonder asks that we attempt to identify the blessings present in our own lives, despite any of the real personal challenges that we may face. Thus, there is a direct relationship between the acknowledgment of God, the wonder of the created world and the concept of gratitude.
Gratitude, therefore, is partially defined as the ability to say thank you to God and others, for it implicitly signifies our recognition that we are not at the center of the universe. It implies that we depend on each other and need each other’s help, deepening our connections. Gratitude, then, leads to humility, to compassion and to kindness. It leads to a sense of fulfillment, peace and happiness. As Cicero stated, it is the parent of all virtues. A little thankfulness can indeed go a long way.
In fact our whole religious system of blessings reflects the critical foundational importance of cultivating gratitude. We say a blessing in appreciation for all of the food we eat, fragrant smells we encounter, wondrous sights we see, wise people we meet and the list goes on. The pages of our prayer book are filled with praises that express thanks to God. “Tov Lehodot Lashem”, the Psalmist says, “It is a privilege (good) to thank God.” For we have so much for which to be thankful! So on a joyous Purim day anticipated our celebration of freedom on Passover let us cultivate our gratitude. Purim Sameah!